WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is planning to modify its current contracting vehicle for launching its mostly experimental small- and medium-class payloads due to a hiatus in activity that is expected to last for at least a third consecutive year.

In 2012, the Air Force awarded Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, and Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts that created a stable of vehicles qualified to launch the small and medium-sized satellites. Actual launch missions under the Orbital-Suborbital Program (OSP)-3 contract are awarded on a case-by-case basis. The program is intended to enhance launch vehicle competition and to give the government flexibility in choosing rockets for specific missions based on cost and risk.

But since the initial two such awards in 2012 — both to SpaceX — the Air Force has not used the contracting vehicle, according to a Feb. 23 posting to the Federal Business Opportunities website. Further, the Air Force does not anticipate awarding any task orders this year, the notice said.

In light of that, the service said it is considering extending the OSP-3 performance period from 2017 to 2019. The Air Force also is considering adding as many as two more providers to the pool of qualified providers in 2016, the posting said.


The OSP-3 contract vehicle has a $900 million ordering ceiling. The two SpaceX missions were worth about $262 million, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars potentially available for launches before the contract expires.

In the meantime, several new small-satellite launchers are under development in the United States and could hit the market in the next few years.

The Space Development and Test Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, is responsible for coordinating orbital and suborbital launches of small payloads from across the Defense Department. These launches historically have been of research-and-development missions, but as small satellites have become increasingly capable in recent years, the directorate now launches the occasional operational spacecraft as well.

In January 2014, the Air Force issued a sources sought notice for as many as two indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts for providers to launch payloads weighing anywhere between 1,810 to 9,072 kilograms. But the service said in the Feb. 23 posting it never published a formal request for proposals because of a dearth of missions in its forecasts.

Minotaur 1 ORS3
Orbital Sciences Minotaur 1 rocket launches the U.S. Department of Defense Operationally Responsive Space-3 mission. Credit: Orbital Sciences

The OSP-3 pricing structure, which features “not to exceed” cost estimates, can make mission “‘sales’ more difficult,” Randy Riddle, the chief of engineering and development for the Air Force’s Rocket System Launch Program, said in a June 2014 presentation. Not-to-exceed pricing often represents a worst-case scenario when in fact actual prices may be significantly lower.

Under the existing contract, Orbital ATK’s Minotaur 1 and Minotaur 4, as well as Lockheed Martin’s Athena 1c and Athena 2c, are eligible for missions to lift 181- to 1,810-kilogram payloads to orbit. Orbital ATK’s Minotaur 6 and Antares rockets, as well as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, are eligible to loft payloads weighing 1,810 to 9,072 kilograms.

On Feb. 11, SpaceX launched the civilian Deep Space Climate Observatory payload in the first of the two missions it was awarded under the OSP-3 contract. In the second of those, SpaceX is expected to launch the Defense Department’s Space Test Program-2 satellite on the debut mission of its Falcon Heavy rocket late this year.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.