WASHINGTON — SpaceX is likely to win — by default — a U.S. Air Force contract to launch a next-generation GPS satellite after United Launch Alliance announced Nov. 16 that it declined to bid.
ULA, which for the past decade has launched nearly every U.S. national security satellite, said Nov. 16 it did not submit a bid to launch a GPS 3 satellite for the Air Force in 2018 in part because it does not expect to have an Atlas 5 rocket available for the mission. ULA has been pushing for relief from legislation Congress passed roughly a year ago requiring the Air Force to phase out its use of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.
While ULA warned in early October that RD-180 availability could prevent it from bidding on the GPS 3 launch, the company said Nov. 16 it does not have the right accounting system in place to submit what the Air Force would deem a compliant bid.
“ULA wants nothing more than to compete, but unfortunately we are unable to submit a compliant bid for GPS III-X launch services,” the company said in a statement sent to reporters. “The [request for proposals] requires ULA to certify that funds from other government contracts will not benefit the GPS III launch mission. ULA does not have the accounting systems in place to make that certification, and therefore cannot submit a compliant proposal.”
ULA — which emphasizes the reliability of its Atlas and Delta rockets as an advantage over SpaceX’s lower advertised prices — also said the Air Force’s GPS 3 launch solicitation “allows for no ability to differentiate between competitors on the basis of critical factors such as reliability, schedule certainty, technical capability and past performance.”
The Air Force called for proposals for the GPS 3 launch Sept. 30. Bids were due Nov. 16 with an award expected in March.
ULA’s decision not to bid is a setback for Defense Department efforts to reintroduce competition into a national security launch market that’s been a de facto monopoly since Boeing and Lockheed Martin merged their launch businesses in 2006 at the government’s request.
The GPS 3 mission is the first of nine medium-class launches the Air Force intends to put out for bid by the end of 2017. Of the nine, six are for GPS 3 satellites.
SpaceX, which is eager to break into the lucrative national security launch market, submitted an unsolicited bid in 2012 to launch the GPS 3 satellites for $79.9 million per launch. The Air Force rejected the offer, but initiated a process for certifying the Hawthorne, California-based company’s Falcon 9 rocket to carry military and intelligence payloads to orbit.
ULA, meanwhile, has been working to lower its launch costs. Last month, NASA awarded ULA a $132.4 million contract to launch the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite-M spacecraft aboard an Atlas 5 rocket in October 2017. NASA paid ULA $187 million to launch the Mars Maven orbiter on an Atlas 5 in 2013.