Senators ask Air Force to not terminate partnerships with space launch industry

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Sen. Patty Murray and Sen. Rick Scott asked Air Force Secretary Barrett to continue Launch Service Agreements with companies that don't win Phase 2 procurement contracts.

WASHINGTON — Two senators from key committees have asked Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett to rethink plans to terminate existing partnerships with companies if they do not win a National Security Space Launch procurement contract.

In a May 13 letter to Barrett, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) call on the Air Force to continue funding agreements signed with three launch companies in October 2018. The Air Force plans to terminate the agreements except those with companies that win a National Security Space Launch Phase 2 procurement contract.

The Air Force in October 2018 awarded Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and Northrop Grumman $2.3 billion in so-called Launch Service Agreement funding to be spread over six years to help defray the cost of getting rockets certified for national security launch and of building launch pads on both East and West coast ranges.

The Air Force said only companies that win Phase 2 procurement contracts scheduled to be awarded this summer will keep receiving LSA funds. Blue Origin, ULA, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX are competing for two Phase 2 awards.

The senators asked the Air Force to “continue its investments in certification and national security specific infrastructure that began with the public private partnerships awarded in October 2018,” said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews.

Murray is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Scott is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Their request mirrors arguments made previously by Blue Origin, which received $500 million in LSA funding and has criticized the decision to terminate agreements for providers not selected for the Phase 2 launch service procurement.

The letter does not mention any specific companies. Blue Origin is headquartered in Murray’s home state. Scott has been a supporter of the company is it expands manufacturing plants and launch facilities in Florida.

The senators noted that the LSA agreements were intended to bolster the domestic industrial base and help the United States end its reliance on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. “Continuing these public private partnerships also supports the domestic launch industrial base at the critical juncture in its growth and development,” said the letter. “These partnerships are helping to change the economics of space launch, making launch more commercially accessible and affordable.

The senators’ letter reiterates points made by the RAND Corp. in a study released last month on the launch industry market. RAND said terminating LSA funding could drive companies to abandon their efforts to certify commercial launch vehicles for national security launch, creating an opportunity for foreign competitors to gain market share.

The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center is reviewing the four companies’ bids for the Phase 2 procurement and said it plans to select two providers this summer.