ORLANDO — In its latest strategy to procure launch services, the U.S. Space Force is taking a calculated risk that new players in the industry will deliver on their ambitious plans.
“What we’ve heard from small launch companies was they wanted an opportunity to compete, they wanted an opportunity to play,” Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, program executive officer for assured access to space at the Space Systems Command, said Feb. 21.
The newly released a draft request for proposals for National Security Space Launch Phase 3 contracts was heavily influenced by new players in the launch industry that want a seat at the table and are investing in launch systems the government wants to leverage, Purdy told SpaceNews at the Space Mobility conference.
The draft solicitation lays out a dual-track approach for the next NSSL round of contracts to be awarded in 2024. The first one, called Lane 1, allows “on-ramps” for newer launch companies that would have been left out if the Space Force had stuck with the NSSL Phase 2 approach that only selected two providers — United Launch Alliance and SpaceX — for five-year contracts.
In Phase 3, companies like Blue Origin that are developing new heavy vehicles, and those working on medium-size launchers like Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, and Firefly Aerospace, will be able to compete for missions on a case-by-case basis. Lane 2 of the Phase 3 procurement will mirror the Phase 2 approach by awarding a fixed number of missions to two heavy-launch providers capable of meeting the most demanding requirements.
Purdy said he met with executives from several companies that strongly argued for the “on-ramp” approach. There are no guarantees these new vehicles will be ready or able to launch when Phase 3 missions start in 2027, but Purdy said the door should be left open.
“I want them to be successful,” he said. If these new vehicles come to fruition, “I want to leverage that.”
The Phase 3 procurement gives companies the opportunity to compete but also protects the government by allowing the two heavy-launch providers that win Lane 2 to take over Lane 1 missions if the newer providers are not ready.
“We structured it so that hey, if for some reason none of them show up, the two winners in Lane 2 will then just go clean up on Lane 1,” Purdy said.
Lane 1 missions presumably would be suited for medium-size vehicles like Rocket Lab’s Neutron, designed to lift 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit while recovering the first stage, or up to 15,000 kilograms if the first stage is expended. The company said it views the Space Force as a key customer for this vehicle.
Purdy said he is aware of the economic uncertainty surrounding the small launch industry that faces price pressures from SpaceX’s rideshares and challenges accessing capital, but that has not deterred the Space Force in its Phase 3 procurement.
“We questioned them,” he said. “We asked them, what size rocket are you building? How are you building the future? What are you getting your venture capital to do?” Purdy added, “and they gave us their business plans.”
Companies shared their roadmaps to expand into the medium-class market, “with solid business plans and venture capital,” Purdy said. “Based on that, we’re saying, okay, you could compete for some of our missions. That’s how we came up with the Lane 1 piece. It provides them an incentive to go build.”
These companies have assured the government that they’re getting venture capital to do this, Purdy said. “And we’re taking them at their word,” he added. “We will look to make sure they have a fighting chance, and then we’ll see where it goes.”