WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force officials will sit down with industry executives in Los Angeles this week to discuss the fine points of the upcoming national security space launch procurement. 

Companies expect to hear details about the Space Force’s plan to attract new launch providers to compete for as many as 70 missions projected for the 2025-2034 timeframe. 

“It’s going to be exciting,” Col. Douglas Pentecost, deputy program executive officer for assured access to space, told reporters Feb. 24.

The Space Force on Feb. 16 released two draft requests for proposals for the dual-track National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3. One is for lower-end launch missions, and the other for the most demanding heavy-lift launches.

Following this week’s meetings with the industry, a second draft RFP will be issued in May, and a final one this summer. The Space Force then will spend about a year evaluating bids.

We’re targeting summer of 2024 contract awards – Col. Douglas Pentecost

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX in 2020 won the NSSL Phase 2 five-year contracts to fly about 35 missions. 

For Phase 3 the Space Force projects anywhere from 60 to 70 missions. About 30 of those will be less demanding “Lane 1” launches that could be performed by emerging launch providers flying medium-size vehicles. The other 40 in “Lane 2” would be heavy-lift missions to high orbits carrying the most sensitive military and intelligence satellites. 

  • Lane 1 will run from 2025 to 2034, with a five-year base period plus a five-year option. Bids will be solicited annually throughout the contract period, so will be opportunities to “on ramp” new companies. These launches could be performed from nontraditional spaceports. 
  • Lane 2 requires certified national security launch vehicles that fly from the Eastern and Western ranges. The contract period will run from 2025 to 2029. As in NSSL Phase 2, two winners will be selected, with the top scorer getting 60% of the missions.
  • Based on market research and conversations with launch providers, Pentecost said, there could be at least four new competitors in Phase 3: Rocket Lab, ABL Space, Relativity Space and Blue Origin. These companies would compete in the more “risk tolerant” Lane 1, although Blue Origin could have a shot at Lane 2 if New Glenn completes three flights and gets certified. 

Commercial vs military demands

Launch companies in the coming years will be busy deploying commercial mega constellations but the Space Force is not worried about a predicted shortage of supply, Pentecost said.

Much of the available launch supply in the near term was gobbled up by Amazon’s space internet Projet Kuiper which is procuring 83 launches on ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Arianespace’s Ariane 6.

Although NSSL launch providers are contractually obligated to prioritize national security missions, the Space Force tries to be flexible, Pentecost said. 

“We have a really good partnership with our launch service providers,” he said. “They know we actually take priority. And we can bump a commercial payload. But we don’t want to do that because we know we’re leveraging their commercial business. And so we work together with industry and with NASA to make sure that nobody is getting impacted.”

“We have never really had a problem arranging our schedule and the commercial schedule,” he said. There are plans to increase launch capacity at Cape Canaveral on the East Coast and at Vandenberg Space Force Base on the West Coast, which will help speed up cadence. 

Taking risks on new providers

Lane 1 will essentially be a wide and open competition. To be eligible, a company does not have to be fully certified as an NSSL provider but has to have a vehicle that’s already flown to orbit, said Col. Chad Melone, senior materiel leader for mission solutions for the Space Force’s space acquisition delta.

“That is to make sure that we’re not awarding contracts to paper rockets,” he said.

Companies that are transitioning from small to medium launchers, for example, are talking about launching tens of metric tons, and presumably could compete to deploy a plane of small satellites to low Earth orbit for the Space Development Agency. 

When bids come in for Lane 1, the NSSL program will work with SDA or other customers launching small satellites to low Earth orbit and assess the risk of flying on a newly developed vehicle. 

“SDA is probably a great example because they have a proliferated constellation” and the agency plans to launch dozens of satellites every year, said Melone. 

Commercial proliferated constellations is what drives the launch demand now, Melone said. “We’ve talked very extensively with the companies and the investors and what we heard is that several companies are chasing after commercial demand for deploying entire planes of those proliferated constellations.”

The government does not know when these companies will be ready and has yet to learn the specifics of their launch systems so the Lane 1 contract allows for “tiered mission assurance,” said Melone, and their risk profile will be based on the maturity of their technology and other factors. 

“Lane 1 really stems from a warfighter need as the architecture is transitioning from single high-value assets to more proliferated constellations,” he said. “We think that Lane 1 provides resiliency through diversity of systems.”

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...