Space Force Reimagining Launch Service Procurement

Space Force Reimagining Launch Service Procurement

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command is reimagining how it procures launch services amid dramatic changes in the launch marketplace. A draft Request for Proposals spells out the new approach where companies will be able to bid in one of two “lanes” for single launches similar to those for commercial customers or a five-year block buy with more demanding requirements. SSC will hold an industry day next week to explain the plan and gather input before releasing the final RFP.

The Space Force is taking advantage of the burgeoning market for space launch and the growth in the number of companies offering launch services while established providers introduce next-generation rockets.

For almost two decades, the United Launch Alliance has been the primary ride to orbit for DOD and National Reconnaissance Office satellites. It is on the cusp of transitioning from its tried-and-true Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, with a 100 percent success record, to the new Vulcan rocket. On Thursday it set May 4 as the date for the first Vulcan launch, the first of two “certification” missions to demonstrate the vehicle’s readiness for national security space launches. One of the payloads is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which partially dictates the launch date since the four-day launch window to reach its destination on the lunar surface opens then.

United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Certification-1 mission booster is hoisted into the Vertical Integration Facility adjacent to Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL, January 25, 2023. Photo Credit: ULA.  The first launch is scheduled for May 4, 2023, the opening of a 4-day launch window.

Space Force’s other major launch provider is SpaceX, with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy also featuring a 100 percent success record for DOD.  Its new vehicle, Starship, will make a first orbital launch attempt as soon as the FAA issues a launch license, perhaps next month.

SpaceX’s Starship stacked for the first time at Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, August 2021. Photo credit: SpaceX. The first orbital launch attempt of Starship could take place in March 2023.

Blue Origin is developing its own large (“heavy lift”) rocket, New Glenn, and signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with SSC in November 2022. A number of companies are building smaller rockets that can meet DOD’s needs for its constellations of smaller satellites as it moves to a “proliferated” architecture of many small satellites instead of a few big satellites once unflatteringly referred to by Gen. John Hyten as “big juicy targets,” an epithet that clearly conveyed the risks.

At the same time, the number of launches overall is growing dramatically. The two main launch sites for national security satellites are Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL and Vandenberg Space Force Base, CA. They also are used for commercial launches.

In a briefing to reporters yesterday, Col. Douglas Pentecost, Deputy Program Executive Officer for Assured Access to Space at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC), illustrated how the business is changing. In 2021, there were 31 launches from Cape Canaveral and 11 from Vandenberg. In 2022, there were 57 and 19 respectively. The projection for this year is 92 and 42.

Col. Douglas Pentecost, Space Systems Command, signs Cooperative Research and Development Agreement with Blue Origin’s Laura Maginnis, Vice President New Glenn, November 18, 2022, Los Angeles Air Force Base, CA. Photo credit: James Spellman, Jr, U.S. Space Force.

SSC wants to take advantage of this new paradigm — more rockets, more service providers, and a proliferated architecture that can utilize many different types of launch vehicles. Not to mention the Space Force’s interest in going beyond Earth orbit into cislunar space.

Under National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3, SSC will still choose two companies to split a five-year (FY2025-2029) block buy of launch services on a 60/40 basis as it did in Phase 2. That is “Lane 2” and requires “full mission assurance with certified launch vehicles” that can put satellites into unique orbits that require high-performance rockets and involve “complex security and integration requirements.” The awards will be firm fixed price (FFP) contracts plus annual “Launch Service Support” to cover associated unique costs. Launches must take place from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg.

“Lane 1” is more flexible. Those bidders can have “more risk-tolerant space vehicles launching to commercially addressable orbits,” not the entire suite of orbits DOD and NRO require. The vehicles do not have to be certified and new vehicles can be on-ramped during the contract period (FY2025-FY2034), which is not permitted for Lane 2. Task orders will be competed on an annual basis among all the companies with winning bids and may be individual or block buys. The FFP contracts will not include Launch Service Support. Companies must bid fully-burdened prices. Lane 1 does not specify what U.S. launch site must be used. In addition to Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg, two other U.S. orbital launch sites are already in operation at Wallops Island, VA and Kodiak, Alaska, and SpaceX soon will be launching from Boca Chica, TX.

SSC projects a need for 60-70 launches under this NSSL Phase 3 procurement of which about 30 are in Lane 1 and about 40 are in Lane 2.

Pentecost said there is a lot of interest and 27 companies already have signed up to participate in next week’s industry day, though some are subcontractors. He expects 5-8 companies to make bids. They can bid for Lane 1, Lane 2, or both. For Lane 2 they are looking for “best value,” meaning  technical, schedule, readiness and risk are significantly more important factors than price.

A second version of the draft RFP will be issued in May and the final version at the end of third quarter 2023. Awards are expected in the summer of 2024.

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