WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is polling the space launch industry as it tries to identify what companies might challenge United Launch Alliance and SpaceX when their current contracts are re-competed in 2024.

“The government is identifying sources capable of providing NSSL-class launch services beginning in fiscal year 2025 and is requesting more detailed information on each provider’s capabilities, launch systems, to include when those capabilities will be available,” says a Jan. 27 request for information from the Space Systems Command’s launch enterprise. Responses are due Feb. 24.

NSSL, short for national security space launch, is a Space Force-run program that procures launch services for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. In 2020 the Space Force awarded United Launch Alliance and SpaceX five-year contracts for NSSL Phase  2. ULA won 60% and SpaceX 40% of approximately 30 to 34 missions projected to be awarded by 2024. Only seven have been assigned to date.

Phase 3 of the NSSL program might be years away but the Space Force has to start the market research now given the long lead schedules in national security launches. Contracts are awarded at least two years before the target launch date and providers have to meet stringent “mission assurance” requirements set by the Space Force to reduce the risk of launch failures. 

Members of Congress, independent analysts and companies like Blue Origin have questioned the Phase 2 strategy for creating a “duopoly” rather than opening up the market to more players. 

Senior officials, including Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, have defended the two-provider strategy as a means to ensure the Defense Department has access to space. Delays in the development of ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket — the vehicle selected to launch the majority of Phase 2 missions — validates the need to have a second provider, Kendall has said. 

The RFI suggests the Space Force might consider a different approach in the selection of Phase 3 NSSL launch providers.  Some of the questions it is asking the industry: “In the 2025-2029 timeframe, would you suggest any changes to the NSSL concept of operations. If so, what are they. How can the government better leverage your commercial conops to meet NSSL needs?”

The Space Force also is asking companies to propose technical, acquisition or contracting approaches to shorten mission integration timeline from the standard 24 months to 12 months or less. 

The Space Force is “collecting market research information from potential Phase 3 launch service providers to improve the government’s understanding of the current and projected market and launch provider’s intended capabilities. Industry responses will help inform and shape an acquisition strategy for Phase 3 procurement.”

Industry sources said the RFI indicates the Space Force anticipates that new vehicles — like Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Rocket Lab’s Neutron — could be ready on time to compete for Phase 3 contracts. The government, however, needs more details on the projected schedules for the vehicles and their business forecasts. The thinking in the NSSL program is that providers should have a viable commercial business so they are not entirely dependent on the government.

These industry sources also noted that the Space Force has not yet communicated its anticipated mission requirements for Phase 3. NSSL uses big rockets to launch large satellites to challenging orbits but there is likely to be a demand in the future for perhaps medium-size vehicles to launch the Space Development Agency’s constellation of smaller satellites to lower orbits.

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...