WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force on Feb. 16 released its procurement strategy for the next national security launch services contracts expected to be awarded in 2024. 

The Space Systems Command issued two draft requests for proposals for National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3. This is a “dual-lane acquisition approach” that marks a departure from the previous NSSL Phase 2 procurement and is intended to create more opportunities for emerging launch providers.

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX won Phase 2 in 2020, and their current contracts will be re-competed. 

The Space Systems Command will consider feedback from the industry before it issues a final solicitation for NSSL Phase 3 later this year. The command will host an “industry day” briefing Feb. 28-March 1 in Los Angeles.

“We developed an acquisition strategy consisting of a dual-lane approach that provides access to diverse commercially available systems, increases resiliency through alternate launch sites and streamlined integration timelines, allows annual on-ramping of emerging launch providers and systems.”

Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, U.S. Space Force program executive officer for assured access to space, in a Feb. 16 statement.

In order to win the NSSL Phase 2 contracts, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance had to demonstrate their vehicles can fly payloads to nine “reference orbits”which requires medium and heavy launch vehicles. 

The strategy for Phase 3 is less rigid. Under the “dual lane” approach, companies that can’t fly to all orbits can compete for less demanding missions. This approach has been advocated by companies like Blue Origin and Rocket Lab.

NSSL Phase 3 Lane 1 

  • This is a multiple firm-fixed price indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract that would be open to all qualified bidders. 
  • Bidders are not required to meet all NSSL orbits to compete. Lane 1 will have annual on-ramping opportunities as emerging providers or systems are ready. 
  • This portion of the contract covers procurements from fiscal years 2025 to 2034, with a five-year base ordering period plus a five-year option. 
  • Task orders for launch services are competed on an annual basis among all IDIQ awardees. 

NSSL Phase 3 Lane 2

  • This is similar to NSSL Phase 2. The Space Force will select two providers that can meet all NSSL orbits and unique mission capabilities. 
  • The contracts will have a five-year ordering period from fiscal year 2025 to 2029. 
  • Lane 2 payloads require launches to more stressing orbits, necessitating higher performance launch systems, and complex security and integration requirements. Lane 2 also allows the government to cover rocket development costs to meet government-unique missions.

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...