A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 18, 2023, lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida, carrying a U.S. Space Force GPS satellite. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force on July 13 released a revised draft solicitation for the next round of national security launch contracts, known as National Security Space Launch Phase 3.

In a major departure from the first draft request for proposals released in February, the Space Force is increasing the number of heavy-lift launch providers it plans to select from two to three.

NSSL Phase 3 is a multibillion-dollar procurement of launch services projected for 2025 through 2029. United Launch Alliance and SpaceX won NSSL Phase 2 in 2020, and their current contracts will be recompeted. 

The Space Systems Command is seeking additional industry feedback prior to releasing the final RFPs later this year. Comments are due July 28.

The revised draft RFP retains the two-lane contracting approach announced in the first draft. Lane 1 would cater to smaller launchers and will be open to any provider that has a proven flight record. But the Space Force is changing its strategy for Lane 2, the portion of NSSL that requires heavy-lift launchers that can fly payloads to nine “reference orbits,” which include some of the most demanding missions. 

The Space Force initially planned to award five-year Lane 2 contracts to just two providers, an approach modeled after the Phase 2 agreements with ULA and SpaceX. 

The decision to add a third provider was made “based on industry feedback and the need to increase resiliency in the face of the pacing challenge from countries like China,” Col. Douglas Pentecost, deputy program executive officer for assured access to space, said July 14 in a news release.

“We refined our strategy to fortify assured access to space by ensuring that the government has three launch providers capable of meeting all NSSL requirements by the end of Phase 3,” Pentecost said. 

The Space Force by adding a third provider is looking to increase “launch capacity, enable supply chain stability, increase resiliency through alternate launch sites and enhance affordability for the most stressing national security space missions,” he added.

Lane 2 payloads demand higher performance launch systems, and have complex security and integration requirements, Pentecost said. 

The winners of Lane 2 submit fixed-price bids for launch services but are also eligible for “launch service support” funding, a subsidy to cover rocket development or infrastructure expenses unique to NSSL. 

Senate bill recommends a third provider

The Senate Armed Services Committee in its version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act directs the Space Force to add a third provider in Lane 2 of NSSL Phase 3.  The House version of the NDAA does not include this provision.

The committee “establishes an additional lane (Lane 2A) two years into Phase 3 of the National Security Space Launch acquisition program to allow for greater competition within the field,” said the bill.

The SASC language reflects concerns from new entrant companies like Blue Origin that plan to introduce new rockets during the projected timeframe for Phase 3. 

Space Force and Air Force officials in the past pushed back on these proposals and insisted that only two providers were needed.

Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, in a July 14 statement explained the thinking behind the revised strategy.

“We must continue to outpace our adversaries and maintain the technological advantage we get as a nation by making our space architecture more resilient so it can be counted on during times of crisis and conflict,” he said. “This is the essence behind the NSSL Phase 3 acquisition strategy.”

The final RFP is scheduled to be released in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023. Lane 1 awards are expected in the third quarter of fiscal year 2024, and Lane 2 awards in the fourth quarter.

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...