Falcon 9 Thaicom-8 launch
The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off May 27, 2016 carrying the Thaicom 8 telecommunications satellite to geostationary-transfer orbit. The rocket's first stage was successfully returned to an offshore drone ship. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX beat United Launch Alliance to win a $96.5 million contract to launch a GPS 3 navigation satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in early 2019, the U.S. Air Force announced March 14.

“SpaceX is proud to have been selected to support this important National Security Space Mission,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and COO, said in a statement. “We appreciate the confidence that the U.S. Air Force has placed in our company and we look forward to working together towards the successful launch of another GPS-III mission.”

The award is SpaceX’s second Air Force launch contract for a GPS 3 satellite but the first for which it faced a competing bid. ULA confirmed last September, when bids were due, that it sent in a proposal.

ULA ultimately decided not to bid on a launch contract the Air Force awarded to SpaceX last April for a 2018 launch of the service’s second GPS 3 satellite. ULA said that it couldn’t win in a straight price shootout and couldn’t be sure it would have a rocket available due to congressional restrictions then in place for the Atlas 5’s Russian-made RD-180 engine. That contract went to SpaceX for $82.7 million, about half of what ULA normally charges for an Atlas 5 launch.

In a statement sent to reporters, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, leader of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said “the competitive award of the GPS 3 Launch Services contract to SpaceX directly supports SMC’s mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our nation.”

The first GPS 3 satellite is currently scheduled for an early 2018 launch aboard a ULA Delta 4 rocket.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...