Erik Seedhouse, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Spaceflight Operations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
In the misguided effort to promote increased competition, the U.S. Senate Armed Service Committee has proposed changes to how the U.S. Space Force selects providers of national security launch services. Their attempted legislative override of the U.S. Space Force’s proposed contractor standards is reckless, and U.S. space leaders fear that it may compromise the success of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) — the government program intended to assure access to space for the U.S. Department of Defense.
On June 22, the Senate Armed Services Committee advanced language within the 2024 National Defense Authorization Agreement that would open NSSL contracts for the most stressing orbits to more than two providers. The U.S. Space Force has warned that adding an additional provider would increase costs and waste agency resources:
A third provider would likely increase costs by more than ~$5B. That $5B could be used to buy ~330 SDA satellites instead. Likely only three bidders, so three awards won’t incentivize industry to bid best prices
It is not as if the Air Force or the Space Force (which operates under the Department of the Air Force) is against promoting competition in the NSSL wherever feasible. Before SpaceX’s introduction of reusable launch vehicles into the marketplace, the Air Force launched the nation’s most sensitive military satellites exclusively on Boeing and Lockheed Martin expendable launch vehicles. Now, however, it has adapted to this innovative breakthrough by awarding many of its contracts to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture whose yet-to-fly Vulcan Centaur rocket is designed for eventual reusability.
Moreover, this year — recognizing the potential of new industry marketplace entrants over the last decade — the Space Force announced it would adopt a two-lane contracting approach for the NSSL. The first lane would cater to smaller launches and will be open to any provider that has a proven flight record, while the second lane would cater to heavy-lift launches and will be open to just two providers with proven flying abilities for high-risk missions. In testimony to Congress, the Air Force said that this approach thoughtfully balances reliability concerns with the need to promote, advance, and further the competitive marketplace and the future of American space travel.
However, according to its executive summary of the bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s new NDAA language “establishes an additional lane (Lane 2 A) two years into Phase III of the National Security Space Launch acquisition program to allow for greater competition within the field).” In other words, it would undercut the Space Force’s request for proposal by mandating that the department consider using more than two providers for high-risk missions.
As stated, the U.S. Space Force has taken no issue with (and has actively fought to promote) utilization of more contractors within the NSSL; that said, it has also made it clear that expanding the NSSL Program for high-risk missions to new, unproven providers in the manner that the committee is advocating would unnecessarily increase the potential for mission failure and added national security vulnerabilities.
As reported by SpaceNews, in May, America’s space procurement leaders explained this ad nauseam to members of Congress:
[Air Force Secretary Frank] Kendall said he supports the two-lane approach and revealed that the strategy was conceived by Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.
“I approved the acquisition strategy that Frank Calvelli came up with,” Kendall told [Rep. Doug] Lamborn. “I thought it was really balanced. It allows us to bring new entrants in early, fluidly, but it also gives us assured access for the higher risk missions.”
It seems that Congress is dismissing these concerns and pushing this procurement change to benefit Blue Origin, which has spent years lobbying legislators for the chance to do exactly what the NSSL requires.
There may be some who wonder how Blue Origin can be awarded a contract when their launch vehicle, New Glenn, has not flown, but that doesn’t matter because a company does not have to have flown its vehicle by the time awardees are announced. All Blue Origin needs is a roadmap for certification. What does that roadmap involve? Well, fewer flights mean less data and insight, but it also means certification is quicker. For example, the U.S. military may certify a launch vehicle — such as the Vulcan — after two flights. Blue Origin? According to Col. Douglas Pentecost, Launch Enterprise deputy director for the U.S. Air Force, it appears a three-flight certification process has been agreed upon. But does that mean New Glenn will be reliable? We don’t know. What we do know is that since its inception, the NSSL program has flown 97 missions with a 100% success rate, and that is a success rate the military would like to continue.
Which raises the question: given the Air Force and Space Force’s impeccable track record with managing the NSSL program, why would Congress seek to override its preferences and concerns?
Another worry from space experts is when New Glenn will be ready for its first certification flight. Again, this is an unknown, since there have been multiple delays to date. After missing its 2022 target launch date, Blue Origin did not set a new target; however, NASA is now planning to use the New Glenn in late 2024. So many delays can be easily construed as a lack of reliability and lack of competitive performance, and these two metrics may lead to delays which in turn may lead to increased risks for U.S. national security.
It is one thing to give nascent companies like Blue Origin an on-ramp of sorts into the industry by giving them greater leeway over standard missions, as the Space Force has suggested. It is quite another to risk the security of this nation’s high-risk missions.
Congress should listen to the Space Force and reject the Senate Armed Services Committee’s change to the NSSL.