Space Force weighing new approach for selecting national security launch providers

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An option under consideration for NSSL Phase 3 is to create “on ramps” to allow emerging launch providers to compete

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is likely to change how it selects providers of national security launch services and how it awards contracts, a program official told SpaceNews.

The changes would affect the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 procurement. United Launch Alliance and SpaceX won the Phase 2 competition in 2020, and their current contracts will be re-competed in 2024.

NSSL acquires launch services for heavy and medium lift class national security satellites.

The Phase 3 procurement strategy is still being finalized and will be released in a draft solicitation expected in the second quarter of 2023, Col. Douglas Pentecost, deputy director of the Space Force’s launch enterprise, said Jan. 13 in an email.

Compared to Phase 2, where only ULA and SpaceX were selected to launch all national security missions over five years, Phase 3 would create “on ramps” for other players to compete.

“The NSSL Phase 3 acquisition strategy is still in development but seeks to meet warfighter requirements while optimally exploiting ongoing advancements in the United States’ ever-growing commercial launch market to best combat the pacing challenge,” Pentecost said.

“A dual-lane contracting approach is being considered,” he said. One would be an IDIQ contract, short for indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity “with an unlimited number of providers.” 

An IDIQ contract would allow the government to purchase launch services on an as-needed basis without committing to a specific amount. Pentecost said this vehicle would be used for less complex NSSL launches where there is likely to be more competitors. “This allows annual on-ramping of new capabilities for the less stressing NSSL missions.” 

The second lane would be like Phase 2, or an indefinite delivery requirements contract with two selected providers for the more demanding NSSL missions.

Launch providers will be briefed on the details after the draft request for proposals is released, said Pentecost. “This will provide an opportunity for potential vendors to submit clarifying questions which will inform the final NSSL Phase 3 RFP planned for summer 2023.”

The dual-lane approach would satisfy congressional concerns about DoD restricting competition. “Some analysts have questioned the Space Force’s decision to award only two launch services contracts in NSSL Phase 2,” noted the Congressional Research Service in a report.

If the Space Force decided to continue working with only two providers in Phase 3, said CRS, “Congress could consider directing the Space Force to select more than two launch providers in Phase 3, directing the Space Force to examine alternative procurement models.”