Under the Air Force Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3) contract, Northrop Grumman provides space launch services with vehicles such as the Minotaur 4 rocket. Credit: Northrop Grumman

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force by early next year hopes to have a new contract vehicle in place that would allow new competitors to provide space launch services for small- and medium-class military payloads, an Air Force official said June 8.

Based on market research done so far, the Air Force believes it will be able to attract at least two providers for each of four mission classes, including a new class of larger payloads weighing up to 9,000 kilograms, said Randy Riddle, chief of engineering and development for the Space Development and Test Directorate’s Launch Test Division.

The Space Development and Test Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., is responsible for coordinating orbital and suborbital launches of small payloads from across the Defense Department. These historically have been research-and-development missions, but as small satellites have become increasingly capable in recent years, the directorate now launches some operational spacecraft as well.

The Air Force since 1997 has relied solely on Minotaur rockets for these missions. Minotaur rockets, which rely on repurposed ICBM solid-rocket motors and are built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., have flown 20 times since 2000 without a failure. The service has contracted for seven more Minotaur launches that will take place during the next few years.

Since 2003 Minotaur rockets have been purchased at fixed prices through the Air Force’s Orbital/Suborbital Program (OSP)-2 contract, for which Orbital Sciences is the only provider. Though the contract runs through 2013, the Air Force has reached the $475 million contract ceiling earlier than anticipated due to higher-than-anticipated demand for the Minotaur 4 launch vehicle, Riddle said.

For the next procurement, called OSP-3, the service expects to issue a request for proposals in August and award multiple indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts by February 2012, Riddle said. The contract will allow the Air Force to buy as many as 16 launches during an eight-year period. Since the previous contract was issued, several new U.S. launch providers have emerged that may be able to meet the military’s needs in a cost-effective way, Riddle said.

“Our objective is to have at least two launch vehicles available to us to fly any given mission, and we would do what we call a mini-competition between the two launch vehicle providers that we select in this big source selection now,” he said.

To receive an OSP-3 contract, a rocket would have to be developed through critical design review, which means most of the detailed design work has been completed, Riddle said. But the Air Force will only pay for discrete launches under this contract and not development work. After three years the Air Force will be able to add new providers to the OSP-3 contract, he said.

For the heaviest OSP-3 missions, the Air Force believes the liquid-fueled Falcon 9 rocket built by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) could be a viable option, Riddle said. The Air Force also may consider Orbital Sciences’ new liquid-fueled Taurus 2 rocket and the solid-fueled Athena rockets that Lockheed Martin Space Systems and ATK Space Systems have teamed up to reintroduce, Riddle said.

For the lower tiers Minotaur rockets remain a viable option, Riddle said. But other firms have rocket designs that could similarly use government-provided propulsion systems.

The move to allow new firms to compete for launches was applauded by Lockheed Martin, ATK and SpaceX. “This is a good move by the Air Force,” SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham said. “This contract appears to share SpaceX’s goal of reducing the cost of access to space, which will make the U.S. competitive again on the international launch market.”



NASA Could Save Millions by Using Minotaur, IG Says

SpaceX Receives Boost in Bid To Loft National Security Satellites