U.S. Air Force To Solicit Bids for GPS 3 Launch

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WASHINGTON — What appears to be SpaceX’s best chance to break into the national security launch market will come later this year in the form of a U.S. Air Force competition to launch one of its next-generation GPS 3 positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

The competition, announced in a draft request for proposals released May 13, marks the Air Force’s second attempt in six months at introducing competition to its satellite launching program.

In January, the service formally canceled a 6-month-old competition to launch a classified payload for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office after it became clear that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket would not be certified in time to meet the mission schedule. The mission was then folded into an existing contract with United Launch Alliance, who has a lock on the national security launch market. SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is trying to break into the market.

The Air Force expects to certify the  Falcon 9 in June, which would make SpaceX eligible for the GPS 3 contract, the first of nine competitive launches the Air Force intends to award between now and the end of fiscal year 2017.

GPS 3 satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin
GPS 3 satellite. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The GPS missions are in the Falcon 9’s wheelhouse.

In 2012, the Air Force turned down an unsolicited bid from SpaceX to launch the GPS 3 satellites for $79.9 million each. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is currently under contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites, the first of which is expected to launch in spring 2017.

Denver-based ULA is launching the current-generation GPS 2F satellites, 12 in all, and has split the work evenly between its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. The Atlas 5 is ULA’s workhorse, less expensive and more versatile than the Delta 4, but its availability for future competitive missions is uncertain because it is powered by a Russian-built main engine that is the subject of a congressionally imposed ban.

Both the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 were developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. ULA, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, is currently the sole provider.

“This is our first competition for EELV launch services in over a decade,” Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, said in a May 13 press release. “Our intent is to reintroduce competition while maintaining our focus on mission success in support of national security space launches.”