Space Force selects ULA and SpaceX for phase 2 launch service contracts

In a widely anticipated announcement, U.S. Space Force and Air Force officials awarded Phase II of U.S. national security missions launch contracts to ULA and SpaceX as the primary launch providers through 2027. The NSSL (National Security Space Launch) Contract is a firm-fixed-price that will support launches planned from fiscal 2022 – fiscal 2027.

These contracts include early integration studies, launch service support, fleet surveillance, launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations, mission assurance, spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for each mission.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO, and our launch service industry partners,” said Dr. William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. 

For ULA, the contract is valued at $337 million in launch procurement contracts for USSF-51 and USSF-106. “ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president, and CEO. “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.” ULA has successfully launched 140 missions to support global observations and communications efforts, and much more with decades of experience as a safe and reliable launch service provider.

SpaceX secured a surprisingly large $317 million in launch procurement contracts for a single mission, the USSF-67. It’s speculated that this mission will likely be a Falcon Heavy launch due to the value of a single launch mission. SpaceX was notably disappointed in the decision not to secure the majority of the procurement since its launch vehicles are passed the stages of development and proven successful on multiple fronts. 

While the outcome of the announcement was expected, it did not come without disappointment from the other parties bidding for Phase II procurement. Previously, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin were awarded Phase I development contracts that valued $792 million and $500 million, respectively. The loss of Phase II could be attributed to the fact that their proposed launch vehicles are still in development and not expected to launch until 2021. These factors possibly played a role as fears existed that they would not be able to deliver without delays or potential failures.

Both Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman released statements on the disappointments of not being selected, noting their experience and competitive price points. Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said the New Glenn bid was a “very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.” Both companies plan to continue the development of their new launch vehicles. Blue Origin is currently developing an orbital class booster called the New Glenn, and Northrop Grumman is developing the OmegA booster. 

“This was an extremely tough decision and I appreciate the hard work the industry completed to adapt their commercial launch systems to affordably and reliably meet our more stressing national security requirements,” said Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of SMC’s Launch Enterprise, in a statement. “I look forward to working with ULA and SpaceX as we progress towards our first Phase 2 launches.” 

The entire NSSL program has aged well, offering more competitive bid opportunities to the private sector. One major point of emphasis with this program and the rebaseline of Phase I in February of 2013 is the overall cost reduction. The NSSL program has returned approximately $7 billion with total life cycle cost reduction at $22 billion, enabling more funds for additional capabilities.

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