SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched the Orbcomm OG2 Mission 1 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on July 14, 2014. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s lower cost compared to its competitor was the major factor in winning a contract for a GPS 3 launch, an Air Force representative said Wednesday.

“Price was a major factor,” said Claire Leon, the launch enterprise director for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees acquisitions for many space systems and services.

During a teleconference with reporters, Leon said SpaceX’s bid price was lower than other “competitors,” but did not refer to United Launch Alliance by name when discussing the contract award.

ULA, which previously had a near-monopoly on launches for the military, also submitted a bid, but declined to say what their price was.

The Air Force announced the award for the February 2019 GPS 3 launch March 14. Leon declined to discuss how SpaceX’s $96.5 million bid compared to any other offers the Air Force received. She said that bidders met the baseline technical and mission requirements for the launch, and so price was a deciding issue.

In a statement sent to SpaceNews, ULA said the company “continues to believe a best value launch service competition with evaluation of mission success and assurance, and past performance including demonstrated schedule reliability, is appropriate and needed for Phase 1A missions given the technical complexities of rocket launch services and their critical significance to the warfighter and U.S. national security.”

“Over the past decade, ULA has provided unmatched reliability with 100 percent mission success and ensured more than 115 satellites were delivered safely to their orbits each and every time,” the statement continued. “We look forward to continuing to provide the best value launch services to enable our customers’ critical missions.”

SMC endeavors to have “as level a playing field as possible for each competition,” Leon said. “We have a set of criteria that each contractor has to meet.”

She said that SMC does look for the best value based upon the specific mission criteria, and that “we will make adjustments based on the mission requirements.”

No reusable rockets

The September 2016 explosion of a Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad did not dissuade SMC from selecting SpaceX, Leon said.

“Any contractor can have a failure,” she said. “It is unfortunate obviously that SpaceX had one [recently]. We have been working with SpaceX very closely, understanding the cause of their failure. If we had any question at the time that they could get back on track, that would have factored into our evaluation. We’re confident they can get back on track in time for this mission.”

Meanwhile, Leon said that the Air Force has no plans to fly payloads on Falcon 9 rockets with previously-flown first stages. The service has specifically requested SpaceX not to fly re-used hardware.

“We would have to certify flight hardware that had been used which is more qualification, more analysis, so we’re not taking that on quite yet,” she said. “If it proves to be successful for commercial, we might consider that in the future.”

SpaceX won the contract for the first GPS 3 launch with a bid of $82.7 million. The winning bid for the second launch was $96.5 million. SpaceNews has contacted SpaceX for an explanation on the price increase.

Leon said she suspected that it was due to company “becoming more familiar with the requirements of the Air Force,” and likely adjusting their bid to better meet the service’s strict “mission success requirements.”

“SpaceX is proud to have been selected to support this important National Security Space Mission,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said in a March 14 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 3 mission.”

The launch is currently scheduled for February 2019 from Cape Canaveral. It’s expected to lift off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, though it could change to nearby Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center if needed, Leon said.

Leon said the service views the entrance of SpaceX into competition as good step in growing a competitive launch scene.

“I think this gets into the overall Air Force launch strategy,” she said. “Assured access to space means we have two families of vehicles that [can launch national security assets]. I think it is good to have a second competitor. It makes competition possible. I think it will help the government over time.”

“You’ll see a lot of innovation between multiple contractors to invest in the rocket systems for the United States,” Leon continued. “So I think we’re actually on a very positive path…and Phase 1A is just a step in that direction.”

The first launches for Phase 1A

The Air Force certified SpaceX as a launch provider for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle missions in May 2015, and the company won its first EELV launch contract in April 2016. That award is for the planned May 2018 launch of the second GPS 3 satellite. The company said it plans to use a Falcon 9 rocket for both launches.

SpaceX has now won the first two launches scheduled for SMC’s ‘Phase 1A,’ a planned series of 15 launches from 2015 to 2019 designed to “onramp new entrants” to space launch while updating major defense systems. The Air Force is planning to start Phase 2 in 2020, when the service expects to have much greater choice in launch capabilities.

The Air Force does not believe that any additional new launch systems will be ready until 2019, Leon said, and expects Phase 1A launches to remain between two current competitors, ULA and SpaceX.

Leon said she does not expect to see a “winner take all” result in the competition for Phase 1A launches, and that each contract bid will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“We’ve done an assessment of the missions in Phase 1A and we think both SpaceX and ULA can be competitive on many of those missions,” she said.

There are only four more GPS 3 launches to be awarded for Phase 1A, however, and Leon said it’s conceivable they could all go to a single company.

The other launches planned for Phase 1A include communications satellites, the Air Force’s missile-warning SBIRS constellation, and launches for the National Reconnaissance Office.

The requirements for those launches will be different than GPS, Leon said, because “some missions are more stressing than others.”

Of the 15 missions planned for Phase 1A, the first two — the GPS 3 launches – are already awarded to SpaceX. Leon said SMC plans to group the next seven launches together, and expects to put out a request for proposal (RFP) within the next couple of months.

The seven launches will be grouped together to help streamline the acquisition process, but it does not mean that a single launch provider will win all seven contracts, Leon said.

SpaceX, however, will need to roll out its next rocket if it wants to win some of the launches.

“They will need the Falcon Heavy for some of those competitions,” Leon said. “They need to get a demo flight off at least to be competitive for some of those missions.”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...