A U.S. Air Force Quick Reaction Launch Vehicle lifts off the pad at the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska. Credit: National Archives

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is revamping its sounding rocket program and hopes to award multiple contracts in late 2016 to providers that could also launch small satellites into low Earth orbit, according to Defense Department acquisition documents.

As a result, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which procures space hardware and software, said Oct. 1 it would need an 18-month extension to its current sounding rocket ordering program. The extension is needed to keep several missions and tests on schedule until the new contracting vehicle, known as the Small Rocket Program or SRP-4, is ready.

The Air Force currently has two providers under the current contract, called SRP-3: two divisions of Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, and Space Vector Corp. of Chatsworth, California.

The awards, made in 2008, are so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts that together created a stable of prequalified companies. Contracts to support specific projects are awarded as task orders as the Air Force sees fit.

The SRP-3 contract has a total potential value of $375 million and was slated to expire Sept. 17, 2015. The Air Force has issued about $238 million in SRP-3 task orders, leaving $137 million available under the planned extension, according to a justification and approval document the service posted Oct. 1 to the Federal Business Opportunities website. The posting also said the Air Force plans to extend the existing contract.

“Without the extension of the ordering period the [Rocket Systems Launch Program] will not be able to provide government agencies access to low-cost, reimbursable, sub-orbital launch service capability and will significantly affect SMC’s ability to utilize its excess ICBM motor fleet,” the Air Force said in the document. Many of the sounding rockets used in the program are powered by excess missile motors.

In the documents, the Air Force pointed to three missions that could face a delay, in some cases as long as two to four years, if the current contracting vehicle is not extended:

  • A Juno target vehicle for the Army as part of operational testing of the Patriot air and missile defense system. The Air Force had expected to award that contract before September 2016.
  • A target vehicle to support classified suborbital research planned for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2018.
  • Unspecified Missile Defense Agency tests that may need to be moved up based on emerging threats.

The follow-on SRP-4 contracting vehicle, managed by the Advanced Systems Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, is expected to run for seven years, or roughly through 2023, according to a sources sought notice posted Oct. 26 on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

The procurement got off to a rocky start and that led to modifications and delays. The Air Force in January 2014 requested information from potential new suppliers but received none from any that it deemed qualified. The responders included Andrews Space Corp. of Seattle and Cummings Aerospace of Niceville, Florida, according to the justification document.

In November 2014, however, the service asked for more industry input and concluded based on the responses that “some of the emerging technologies … will have been tested in time for new entrants to compete for the SRP-4,” the Oct. 1 document said.

The industry responses came as the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office searched for a rocket to launch a space surveillance satellite, known as ORS-5, in 2017. That satellite will launch on an Orbital ATK-supplied Minotaur 4 rocket, which utilizes excess ICBM assets, at a cost of $23.6 million.

The Minotaur 4 was supplied under the Air Force’s Orbital-Suborbital Program, led by Orbital ATK, which runs in parallel to the SRP and is used to launch small- and medium-class payloads. Orbital payloads launched under the SRP can only weigh as much as 180 kilograms.

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.