A Delta 4 Heavy rocket carrying a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office lifts off June 11 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Josh Dinner/SpaceNews

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center announced Aug. 7 it awarded United Launch Alliance a $156.7 million contract modification for a Delta 4 Heavy launch of the National Reconnaissance Office mission NROL-70, the third and final mission awarded to ULA under an existing Launch Vehicle Production Services contract worth a total of $467.5 million.

The value of the ULA contract for three Delta 4 Heavy launches amounts to about half of what the government will actually pay to launch the NRO missions. Launches are funded through multiple contracting vehicles. The production services contract awarded to ULA covers hardware and labor costs that are paid in advance to because these are complex missions for which it takes four years to prepare.

According to the contract justification documents, ULA “requires immediate contractual commitment to begin the production process and procure the necessary subsystems to support the production through launch timeline.”

Under a separate contracting vehicle, the Launch Operations Support contract, ULA will be paid for mission assurance and integration activities for the three Delta 4 launches. This is in addition to funds that already had been committed to ULA under an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Phase 1 block buy negotiated in 2013 for 36 cores. The NRO also funds long lead hardware procurement under the “NRO Integration Contract for EELV” to ensure launch capability.

Under the $467.5 million contract for launch vehicle production, ULA in October 2018 was awarded three NRO missions — NROL-91, NROL-68, and NROL-70 — projected to launch in fiscal years 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively. The production of the third Delta 4 Heavy rocket under this contract is expected to be completed by January 2024. The NROL-91 contract was awarded in October 2018 is for a 2022 launch, and the NROL-68 award announced May 9 was for a 2023 launch.

The Launch Operations and Support contract will be awarded later this year, according to SMC. The Air Force is still in negotiations with ULA over the cost of the launch operations and support services.

The three NRO missions were awarded to ULA as a sole-source contract as the Delta 4 Heavy vehicle is the only rocket that currently meets the mission requirements for NRO assets, including unique handling at the launch site and mission-specific hardware. A sole source request for proposal was issued to ULA in March 2017 for the three NRO missions.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center negotiated with ULA a savings of approximately $27.5 million per launch for the three Delta 4 Heavy missions. These are expected to be the final three Delta 4 Heavy launch vehicles that ULA produces. The Air Force is buying the three Delta 4 Heavy missions to ensure the NRO can get its very large satellites on orbit between now and 2024 before the Air Force transitions to new vehicles under the National Security Space Launch program starting in 2022. ULA has said it will phase out the Delta 4 Heavy after the next-generation Vulcan is certified. The contract for the three NRO missions buys the Air Force and the NRO time to assess whether other vehicles are ready to fly heavy payloads beyond 2024 and that it will be safe to retire the Delta 4 Heavy.

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...