Blue OriginEast CoastNew SpaceNews and UpdatesPolicySpaceXULA

Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA Selected for National Security Missions

The Vulcan core stage for the Cert-2 Flight is loaded onto ULA’s barge, “Rocketship” ahead of its shipment to the cape.
Credit: ULA, via Flickr

In an announcement on June 13th, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Blue Origin were selected for the Department of Defense’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 program. All three providers are now eligible to compete for a series of 30+ launches, with a combined value of $5.6 billion, expected from 2025 to 2029. The DoD’s memo published on June 13th stated that there were seven bidders for the contract, implying that the three companies selected were the only ones that met the criteria: a credible path to launch in 2024. 2024 is shaping up to be a historic year for spaceflight, with multiple systems making the jump from development and into operation, but this latest announcement could hold clues towards the industry’s future. 

NSSL Phase 3 differs from previous contracts, in that it has been split into two “lanes.” Lane 2 covers important, high priority payloads that may require placement into high energy orbits or present mass challenges. USSF-52, the ongoing latest flight of Boeing’s X-37B spaceplane in a high elliptical orbit, is an example of a mission which would fit into Lane 2, and was launched by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. USSF-25 is another demanding payload, it is the launch of DARPA’s Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations (DRACO), an experimental nuclear engine, and is slated to launch in 2027 aboard ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur. SpaceX’s Falcon and ULA’s Vulcan have effectively absorbed National Security Space Launch to date, and will likely continue to represent the majority of launches awarded for some time.

Lane 1 has a purpose of addressing this, as Lane 1 represents less demanding, low priority payloads which need only delivery to Low Earth Orbit – payloads the DoD is willing to risk on more experimental systems. Lane 1 has been spun-off by the DoD as a method by which new entrants to the launch market can be onboarded. This is being done in the interests of establishing multiple redundant options for launching national security payloads, while increasing competition in pursuit of lowering launch costs. In this case, the new provider is Blue Origin, pitching their New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin previously bid for NSSL Phase 2, however they did not win, only SpaceX and ULA were selected for Phase 2 back in 2020. New Glenn’s entry into Phase 3 however represents a significant victory for Blue Origin, potentially netting their new launch vehicle several new launches and by extension a new line of income.

In the day following the announcement, both ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur and Blue Origin’s New Glenn had new activity. ULA CEO and President Tory Bruno made a series of posts on X, formally Twitter, on June 14th, 2024, documenting the loading of the second Vulcan-Centaur core stage onto ULA’s barge, “Rocketship.” This culminated with a post at 2:58 PM EST, with a photo of the barge departing for Cape Canaveral. This post confirmed the stage was for Vulcan’s second certification flight, still anticipated to carry Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser to the ISS, and also demonstrated that the third Vulcan core stage had taken its place inside the facility and already began engine integration. Vulcan-Centaur’s third flight is currently expected to be USSF-106, and would be the system’s first flown national security payload. In a previous post, Bruno confirmed that Vulcan is expected to fly three more times in 2024.

Blue Origin meanwhile, also on June 14th, briefly put their New Glenn simulator vertical at Blue Origin’s launch pad at Launch Complex 36. The simulator is a test-article which roughly replicates the weight and dimensions of a full launch vehicle, but is not flight hardware. The action follows the release of an FCC Special Temporary Authority licence on June 12th, allowing Blue Origin to conduct integrated tests of its New Glenn rocket, which involve comms checks and communications across Blue Origin’s launch pad and broader launch architecture. This marks the second time this article has stood vertical on the pad, and likely the beginning of New Glenn’s pre-launch test campaign, expected to ramp up over the next few weeks and months. New Glenn is currently anticipated to launch in mid-to-late September of 2024, carrying NASA’s EscaPADE mission to Mars.

The New Glenn “flight-like pathfinder” sits on the pad during testing. Testing was conducted with the New Glenn pathfinder back in February of 2024. This hardware has not reappeared yet, but may follow the current round of testing with the more basic simulator.
Credit: Blue Origin, via X

SpaceX’s involvement in Lane 1 presented some initial confusion, with Reuter’s Joey Roulette claiming on X that the vehicle SpaceX had bid was their upcoming Starship-Super Heavy. Space Scout’s own Nik Alexander approached Roulette for clarification on the origin of the claim, leading Roulette to return with the clarification that while Space Systems Command did claim that Starship was pitched for Lane, language used in the selection announcement more closely matches Falcon 9. It was speculated that perhaps SpaceX submitted two different bids for Lane 1, one for Falcon, and one for Starship, with only Falcon’s being selected, though this was not confirmed. If Roulette’s suspicions are accurate, the message sent is clear: analysts at the Pentagon have deemed ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn as more mature than Starship. Starship-Super Heavy has launched four times now, and so this conclusion may come as a surprise, considering Vulcan has only flown once, and New Glenn is yet to fly at all. Starship’s development progress can be difficult to pin down, so while some amount of hardware has flown, substantial work lies ahead for that hardware to turn into an operational service.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are fully operational and have been for several years, so between the two bids, SpaceX remains a healthy part of the national security launch landscape. The Department of Defense requires two successful flights with different regimes to qualify a launch system to support its payloads, as previously described ULA’s Vulcan is currently working towards its second flight. While New Glenn is anticipated to launch for the first time this year, it too will need to launch successfully twice before it is certified to provide service to the DoD, and the vehicle’s initial cadence is unclear. At time of writing Blue Origin has not announced New Glenn’s initial launch manifest, and likely won’t until closer to or after the vehicle’s maiden flight.

A new opportunity for new launch vendors to pitch their systems for Lane 1 will open next year in 2025, and while the addition of New Glenn is a start, to fill the demand for new systems, newer players in the industry need to make significant progress. Four rejected bids (not accounting for a potential second SpaceX bid) shows that the industry is not quite as ready as its younger providers think they are. Regardless, all eyes will be on ULA and Blue Origin in the latter half of 2024 to see if the Pentagon’s choices are sound.

Edited by Nik Alexander

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.