RESTON, Va. — Frank Calvelli, the assistant secretary of the Air Force in charge of Space Force acquisitions, said a top concern for his office this year is the launch tempo of United Launch Alliance.

“I think it’s going to be really important for us to watch two amazing companies: ULA and Blue Origin,” Calvelli said Feb. 27. “They need to scale.”

Speaking at the National Security Space Association’s Defense and Intelligence Space Conference, Calvelli applauded the successful inaugural launch last month of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and emphasized the need for the company to adapt swiftly to a faster-paced launch schedule.

He noted that ULA is projecting to launch Vulcan at least once a month, and ramp up to two launches per month by 2025. Calvelli said that would be a “dramatic change in the culture” of ULA which has flown only six rockets a year on average over the past five years.

Calvelli said he will be monitoring ULA’s ability to scale and Blue Origin’s ability to deliver Vulcan’s BE-4 engines in a timely manner to support a higher launch cadence. 

ULA’s Vulcan was selected by the Space Force in 2020 to launch 60% of the 48 missions projected for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract, while SpaceX won the other 40%. Due to delays in Vulcan’s development, the Space Force had to reassign some missions so ULA will end up with 54% and SpaceX with 46% of Phase 2 launches. 

Vulcan has to complete one more successful launch to get certified for NSSL missions. ULA said it expects to be certified before year’s end. Meanwhile, the Space Force plans to award NSSL Phase 3 contracts in the fall.   

Calvelli said he’ll be watching closely ULA’s efforts to ramp up and launch twice a month, “and we need Blue Origin to provide those BE-4 engines to ULA in a timely way.”

SpaceX not mentioned

Calvelli did not mention ULA’s NSSL competitor SpaceX that is now the dominant force in the launch industry. SpaceX nearly reached 100 launches in 2023 and expects to exceed that in 2024.

Less than a decade ago, ULA was the only game in town for military space launch until rival SpaceX disrupted the market. With ULA now reportedly up for sale, Blue Origin is viewed as the leading bidder to purchase the company. How that potential shift unfolds could have ripple effects in the NSSL program.

Asked to make a prediction about the launch industry and NSSL, Calvelli said: “I would like to see a whole bunch of competitors, and prices go down.”

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...