WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab’s chief executive Peter Beck is candid about his company’s role in reshaping the U.S. government’s approach to buying launch services.

“We’re very happy with the outcome,” Beck says of the recent draft solicitation for the next round of national security space launch contracts.

Unlike the previous National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 procurement, future Phase 3 contracts will allow emerging players to compete head-to-head against incumbents.

“That’s what we were certainly promoting to occur,” Beck tells SpaceNews

The Space Systems Command last month released two draft requests for proposals for NSSL Phase 3. The dual-lane approach is intended to allow commercial companies like Rocket Lab and others to compete. Lane 1 is for lower-end launch missions, and Lane 2 is for the most demanding heavy-lift launches that currently are flown by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

Beck says Lane 1 is “the sweet spot” for Rocket Lab’s Neutron, a new medium-size reusable launch vehicle the company plans to start flying in late 2024 and position to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for commercial mega-constellation deployments. The vehicle also was designed with NSSL in mind. 

At least 30 missions are projected for Lane 1 from fiscal years 2025 to 2034. These would be more “risk tolerant,” the Space Force said, and fly to lower orbits. 

“We were obviously lobbying for this change and we felt that this would be a good approach,” says Beck. “It’s always good to have your customer be part of the development program informing you of their needs.”

Beck expects Rocket Lab will not only have to compete against new players like Relativity Space and Blue Origin, but also against Phase 2 incumbents ULA and SpaceX. The Space Force will allow certified heavy-lift launch vehicles eligible for Lane 2 to also compete for Lane 1 missions. 

SpaceX conceivably could out-muscle Lane 1 competitors with aggressive pricing but Beck hopes the government will take other factors into account when selecting providers. 

“Price is important, but I think in the spirit of this whole concept of making sure there’s more than just two providers, I think the government will probably look upon that as a strategic industrial base decision,” Beck says. “If you want to foster and grow a wider industrial base, you may need to make some decisions not based only on price.”

No ‘paper rockets’

A key requirement for Lane 1 competitors is to have accomplished a successful mission to orbit, something that Rocket Lab also pushed for. 

“We were very pleased to see that in there,” Beck says. “We didn’t want to see a contract mechanism where paper rockets could compete.”

He notes that some DoD and NASA small-launch contract vehicles allow companies that don’t have actual rockets to submit bids “and there’s no distinction between a paper rocket and a real rocket … You see folks that put proposals together that on paper look very compelling but the rocket doesn’t actually exist.”

For years, “there was always a sense of frustration that we have to compete against these unproven paper rockets. So we’re very happy to see that we don’t have to do that in this next NSSL.”

Developing a rocket is ‘painful’

Rocket Lab is investing approximately $250 million in the development of Neutron. The Space Force is pitching in $24 million to help develop the upper stage.

Beck says first-stage tanks already are being prototyped in undisclosed locations. Development work is taking place at Wallops, Virginia; at NASA’s Stennis Center in Mississippi; in Long Beach, California; in New Zealand and other locations.

“Old aerospace would go and build a giant factory, and then start working on the rocket,” he says. “We start working on the rocket and then add the factory as required, hence the reason why we’ve got some tanks being built in some areas and some tanks being built in others.”

Rocket Lab meanwhile is “pushing some dirt” on Neutron’s future launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, where the company recently started launching its small Electron rocket.

Launching from Wallops will allow Neutron to compete for NSSL missions to sun synchronous orbits and mid-inclination, which typically would be launched from Vandenberg, California, he adds.  “Lane 1 is pad agnostic, which we’re pleased to see as well.”

“Building a new rocket is a very painful exercise,” Beck says. “I wouldn’t have bothered going down that road if we didn’t think we can be competitive against Falcon 9.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...