United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno, second from left, discusses the company's Vulcan rocket during a launch provider panel May 7 at Satellite 2019 in Washington. Credit: Brian Berger/SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — The national security space launch competition the Air Force kicked off last week will challenge providers to dramatically improve their vehicles’ performance in order to meet more demanding mission requirements than they faced in the past, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno told SpaceNews on Tuesday at the Satellite 2019 conference.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center on May 3 released the final request for proposals for the purpose of competitively awarding contracts in 2020 to two domestic launch service providers. The National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement (LSP) is the second phase of the program previously known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle and renamed National Security Space Launch. The field of competitors is likely to include current national security launch providers United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, was well as new entrants Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. One winner will get 60 percent of national security missions projected for 2022 through 2026. The other will get 40 percent.

LSP proposals are due August 1. The Air Force initially had planned on giving competitors 60 days to submit their proposals but extended the time allowed to respond to 90 days. Bruno said that was not a surprise given the complexity of the RFP. After proposals are submitted, Bruno said, he expects the Air Force will take several months to review vendors’ bids and follow up with extensive question-and-answer sessions with individual providers.

Phase 2 is a different acquisition strategy and has a new set of requirements for national security launches that did not exist in the EELV program, Bruno said. The Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office laid out a range of missions they believe they will need to accomplish over the coming years, and have challenged the industry to deliver a much higher level of performance, said Bruno. He noted that the vehicles that exist today cannot fly all the required missions in Phase 2.

“The requirements are based on the government’s best analysis of what it will need and how that is influenced by space being a contested environment,” he said. The requirements in Phase 2 are “obviously traced to what we had in the past, but they are harder,” Bruno said. “There’s more reference orbits, the masses are often larger, and the orbits and higher energy and more difficult to reach.”

For the first time the Air Force is attempting to give the industry a long-term  projection of its future needs, he said. By comparison, the last EELV purchase of launches was structured as individual procurements, “sometimes one rocket for one mission at a time, or grouped in small numbers,” Bruno said. In the most recent EELV Phase 1A, ULA and SpaceX ended up each winning six missions. “The selection criteria was unique to each mission. What we offered was what we had.”

For Phase 2, the Air Force will depend on newly designed vehicles to perform more complex missions. Bruno said the Air Force has closely monitored the development of all providers’ vehicles. Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman in October were collectively awarded Launch Service Agreement contracts worth $2.3 billion to help partially fund the development of their vehicles and build the infrastructure to launch national security payloads in preparation for the Phase 2 LSP. SpaceX did not win an LSA contract but is expected to compete in Phase 2.

“The government has observed our vehicle designs for years,” said Bruno. “They have been following us. They’ll have a really good idea of how well our rockets are going to perform against the requirements.”

ULA is developing its next-generation Vulcan rocket to replace the Atlas 5. Because of the more stringent technical demands of the Phase 2 competition, ULA decided to make it larger than originally planned. “Vulcan was purpose built for those requirements, it was a deliberate choice that we made,” he added. “Had we designed our rocket to be optimized for the commercial marketplace, it would have been smaller.”

In one of the more controversial provisions of the Phase 2 RFP, the Air Force would allow the winners to offer an alternative launch vehicle if the rocket they bid initially is not ready to fly national security missions by 2022. ULA’s competitors have argued that provision heavily favors ULA as it would be able to offer the Atlas 5 if Vulcan is behind schedule. By law the Air Force is allowed to purchase Atlas 5 launches until Dec. 31, 2022. Congress mandated that the Air Force stop using that vehicle because its main stage is powered by the Russian RD-180 engine.

Bruno said he is still studying the RFP and could not comment on what ULA might bid. “Other people may have more than one rocket configuration as well,” he said. Presenting “less risk to the government” is one factor in the evaluation criteria, he said. Bruno cautioned that he couldn’t speculate on why that provision was included but said allowing an alternative vehicle would certainly reduce the risk that a mission could not be accomplished on time.

Although Vulcan was designed for the national security launch program, Bruno said the vehicle will be less expensive than Atlas 5 and will be positioned to compete for commercial work. ULA expects to fly its first commercial mission in April 2021 followed by a second mission two to three months later. The company needs to complete at least two Vulcan missions with commercial customers to get certified by the Air Force to fly national security payloads.

In the longer term, said Bruno, one potential source of business for Vulcan could be bulk launches of dozens of small satellites for operators that are building large constellations.

Megaconstellation operators will create two potential markets for launch providers, he said. One is for the deployment of the initial population of satellites. The other is the follow-on maintenance.

“The initial population will be launched on medium and heavy lifters,” Bruno said. Launching 40 to 50 satellites on Vulcan, for example, could get a constellations up and running quickly. The maintenance phase — when only a few satellites will be deployed to replace out-of-service spacecraft — would be best performed by small vehicles. “I see a niche market for a limited number of providers to do that mission,” said Bruno. ULA does not plan to get into the small vehicle market, he said. Small vehicle providers like RocketLab right now do not pose a competitive threat to big rocket companies, said Bruno. “Wherever the market goes in the future we’ll follow. Right now we’re focused on finishing the development of Vulcan.”

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...