AUG. 10, 2020– The United States Space Force has awarded the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) contracts to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.
Under this contract, ULA will receive 60% of launch contracts, and SpaceX will receive 40% of launch contracts. The first launches under this contract will be in 2022, with USSF-51 and USSF-106 going to ULA, and USSF-67 going to SpaceX, per the US Air Force. For their missions, ULA will be awarded $337 million and SpaceX will be awarded $316 million, suggesting that ULA will launch two small satellites, and SpaceX one large satellite.
Tory Bruno, CEO and president of ULA, said that “ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement. Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs.”
Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive, expects there to be about 32 missions in Phase 2 of NSSL. He also said that “we don’t think this is the last round of innovation that we’re going to see. Although we’re excited for the next five years, we’re looking ahead to ‘Phase 3’ five years from now and wondering what new leap-ahead, lower cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper.”
In order to contend for this contract, ULA and SpaceX made concepts specifically for the contract requirements. ULA’s proposed rocket, Vulcan-Centaur, has an extended fairing option to better accommodate all sizes of national security satellites, and moves away from the Russian RD-180 engine used on the Atlas V, in order to remove reliance on Russian manufacturers. The Vulcan rocket instead uses the American made BE-4 engine, manufactured by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ aerospace startup that submitted their own rocket, New Glenn, for Phase 2 consideration.
SpaceX submitted concepts of their currently flying Falcon Heavy rocket with modifications tailored to the NSSL requirements. These modifications include an extended fairing for larger payloads, and a mobile gantry at launchpad 39A which would give Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 the ability to vertically integrate satellites, a capability needed for the contract Vertical integration will assist with many commercial satellites as well, per Spaceflight Now.
ULA and SpaceX were not the only ones to make bids for NSSL Phase 2. The losing bids came from Northrop Grumman and their OmegA rocket, a rocket with a solid first stage based off of the Space Shuttle SRBs, in a configuration similar to the cancelled Ares I rocket, along with Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, a semi-reusable rocket similar to the Falcon 9, with a first stage that lands on a drone-ship. OmegA was awarded $792 million in Phase 1 funding, and New Glenn $500 million, but both were denied Phase 2 funding.
Go Vulcan-Centaur. Go Falcon Heavy. Go US Space Force.