Enlarge /. Artist's impression of a Vulcan-Centaur rocket launch.
On Friday afternoon, the U.S. Air Force answered one of the big questions asked in the U.S. launch industry for more than a year: Which two companies will be selected to compete for national safety launch contracts from 2022 to 2026?
During a video call with reporters, William Roper, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisitions, Technology and Logistics, said that the United Launch Alliance will receive approximately 60 percent of the launch orders and SpaceX the other 40 percent. Two other bidders, Northrop Grumman with its Omega rocket and Blue Origin with its New Glenn vehicle, received no awards.
"The ability to meet our technical factors to complete the mission is most important," replied Roper when asked about the Air Force's criteria. Secondary factors included past performance, ability to work with small businesses, and overall price evaluated. The military has nine reference trajectories for large and complex payloads that these missiles must encounter.
United Launch Alliance
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) has long been the only provider of the military for national security launches and had to adapt to fight for this new round of awards. In particular, Congress banned the military from procuring the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine after 2022. This engine powers the ULA's most affordable rocket, the Atlas V-Booster.
For this reason, ULA has developed a new booster with Vulcan-Centaur, which can meet the requirements of the Air Force with a drive system based in the USA. The first stage of the rocket is powered by the BE-4 engine, which is developed and manufactured by Blue Origin.
While this rocket may make its debut in 2021, it is not safe as technical problems almost always arise when developing new launch systems. Roper said the company can continue to use the Atlas V-Booster until Vulcan is ready, as Congressional law only prohibits the purchase of new engines, not their use. A dozen of these engines are available.
"I'm very confident with the selection we made today," said Roper. "We have a very low-risk way of getting the RD-180 engines out on time and not having to dive into the available excess."
Of the bidders, only SpaceX has rockets on hand for these contracts. Both the Falcon 9 single-stick missile and the three-core Falcon Heavy missile have had track records, and the Air Force has certified both for national security missions.
According to Roper, the Air Force is expecting a total of 30 to 34 orders for missions to be awarded from 2022 to 2026. Assuming a breakdown of total contracts between 60 and 40, this will likely result in contract values of approximately $ 3.5 billion for United Launch Alliance and $ 2.5 billion for SpaceX. However, these are rough estimates and the US Air Force has not released specific amounts. These awards ensure that ULA and SpaceX continue a longstanding rivalry.
As part of Friday's announcement, the Air Force announced that the ULA has been assigned the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions, slated to launch in the second quarter of fiscal 2022 and fourth quarter of fiscal 2022, respectively. SpaceX has been assigned to USSF-67, which is scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022. Launch service support orders and launch service contracts will be placed with ULA for $ 337 million and SpaceX for $ 316 million for launch services for fiscal 2022 launch dates. (This latter value suggests that the SpaceX mission will likely fly with the Falcon Heavy rocket.)
In October 2018, the Air Force signed the Launch Service Agreement (LSA) to ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin to support the development of their missiles. Those funds should help companies submit competitive bids for the launch contracts in the mid-2020s (SpaceX was banned, likely because its rockets were already flying).
However, not all of these development funds have been disbursed and these contracts are now being terminated due to the loss of the Northrop and Blue Origin bidders. "We will work with these two companies to find the right point to end their work under the LSA agreements," said Roper. "The goal is not to wear them indefinitely. The goal of an LSA was to create a more competitive environment."
Blue Origin is likely to continue developing its New Glenn missile – which likely wasn't ready to fly military missions in 2022 anyway. Founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, the company will also play for commercial missions, trying to compete for military launches in 2027 and beyond.
Less clear is the fate of Northrop's Omega missile, which is unlikely to find its way forward without guaranteed revenue from military launch contracts.