Delta 4 Heavy NROL-71 Vandenberg launch
A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy lifts off Jan. 19 carrying a classified payload. The delay of the launch from late 2018 helped cushion a projected decline in earnings that Lockheed Martin expects from ULA in 2019. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center on Thursday awarded United Launch Alliance a $149 million contract modification for a Delta 4 Heavy launch of the National Reconnaissance Office mission NROL-68, the second of three missions awarded to ULA under the Launch Vehicle Production Services contract in October 2018.

ULA in October 2018 was awarded three NRO missions — NROL-91, NROL-68, and NROL-70 — projected to launch in fiscal year 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively. Mission one (NROL-91) was ordered at contract award in October 2018. Thursday’s announcement is for mission two (NROL-68). The total value of the LVPS contract is $467.5 million.

The Air Force sole-sourced the LVPS contract to ULA because the Delta 4 Heavy launch vehicle is the only rocket that currently meets the mission requirements for NRO assets, including unique handling at the launch site and mission-unique hardware. “The Air Force determined ULA was the only certified launch service provider with the capability to provide launch services for NROL-68, NROL-70, and NROL-91 missions,” a spokesman said. A sole source request for proposal was issued to ULA in March 2017 for the three NRO missions.

NROL-68 and NROL-70 are planned to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. NROL-91 is planned to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

The Air Force intends to compete future national security space heavy lift launch services when new vehicles enter the market. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is expected to be certified in the coming months, and competitors Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are developing new rockets, as is ULA. Although ULA is retiring the Delta 4 Medium this year, the Air Force wants to keep the Heavy in service until the mid-2020s to ensure it has a heavy lift capability until other vehicles are ready.

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...