Space Force To Add Third NSSL Lane 2 Provider, But Limited to 7 Launches

Space Force To Add Third NSSL Lane 2 Provider, But Limited to 7 Launches

The U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command is modifying its procurement of future National Security Space Launch providers. Now three instead of two companies will be able to win contracts to launch the most expensive, most critical satellites. However, the third company will be limited to just seven launches over the 5-year procurement period.

SSC unveiled its strategy for the Phase 3 NSSL procurement earlier this year for launches that will take place in FY2025-2029. To take advantage of the bevy of emerging commercial space launch providers, it split the procurement into two “lanes.”

Companies competing for Lane 1 contracts need to meet fewer requirements than those in Lane 2. Lane 1 competitors can have “more risk-tolerant space vehicles launching to commercially addressable orbits,” not the full range of orbits required by DOD and the National Reconnaissance Office. Lane 2 competitors must provide the government with much more insight, be able to launch from both the East and West coasts into unique orbits, and be fully certified.

Companies can compete in either or both Lane 1 and Lane 2.

After receiving feedback on its original draft Request for Proposals and reevaluating other factors, SSC is making a significant change for Lane 2 in a revised draft RFP issued on July 14.

The plan was to choose two providers with a 60/40 split to the first and second competitors to demonstrate best value to the government. SSC is keeping the 60/40 split, but carving out seven launches that will go to a third competitor.

Since the first draft request for proposals was issued, the number of projected launches has grown from 39 to 58, so even with seven set aside for a third provider, the first two “best value” competitors will end up with more launches under the 60/40 split than initially envisioned.

The seven that will go to the third provider are five GPS and two “direct-to-GEO” launches, meaning directly into a geosynchronous orbit (GEO) instead of an intermediate geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO), which is much more challenging.

Col. Douglas Pentecost told reporters this afternoon the decision to add a third Lane 2 provider was driven by market capacity considerations and to guard against the possibility of delays due to a failure.

“Orginally we were going to have two guys, 60/40” but what if “one of the two has a grounding event and can’t fly? Maybe something happens with that company. We’ve seen some small companies recently go out of business and we have no worries about our big companies, but we just want to protect outselves that over the next five years we will have three guys that we have access to to meet these critical needs.”

Because of the unique requirements Lane 2 providers must meet, they not only will be paid for the launch service itself, but an additional “launch service support” Firm Fixed Price contract. Pentecost said the revised draft RFP would limit that launch service support contract to $100 million per provider per year.

SSC is inviting potential competitors to an “industry days” event over the next two days to get their feedback on this new proposal including the $100 million cap. The plan is to issue the final RFP in September with proposals due in December and the first awards in October 2024. To win a launch services contract the companies must demonstrate they will be ready to launch by 2027. If they can launch before that, all the better.

Winning one of the three Lane 2 contracts is not the same as being assigned a launch. Launch assignments will be made every October 1st. The company’s rocket has to be flying, not still in development, to get an assignment.

The United Launch Alliance and SpaceX are the two Phase 2 NSSL launch service providers and are expected to be the top competitors in this new round. Both are close to introducing new launch capabilities, ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur and SpaceX’s Starship. Blue Origin is expected to be the third with its New Glenn rocket.

The Senate version of FY2024 National Defense Authorization Act now being debated on the Senate floor calls for an “accession launch program” as part of the Phase 3 procurement.  Sec. 1502 specifies that “Lane Two A” involve “five launches of GPS Block IIIF satellites or satellites the launches of which are complex, high-energy missions,” which is very similar to what was announced today — five GPS launches plus two direct-injection to GEO launches.

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