SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
Falcon 9. Credit: SpaceX

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.”

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.