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Blue Origin, SpaceX, and ULA To Compete For 30 National Security Missions Worth $5.6 Billion USD

The three aerospace companies will compete for orders starting in fiscal year 2025 and running through 2029.

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Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Sat Jun 15 2024Written by Zac Aubert

The U.S. Space Force has awarded contracts to Blue Origin, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 launch services program. These contracts, potentially worth up to $5.6 billion over five years, mark a notable expansion in the number of companies involved in launching sensitive national security satellites.

Contract Details and Competition

The three aerospace companies will compete for orders starting in fiscal year 2025 and running through 2029. The NSSL program requires the Space Force to order individual launch missions up to two years in advance, with at least 30 missions expected to be contested over the five-year period.

This contract is a major victory for Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, as it marks its first selection for launching national security satellites. SpaceX and ULA have previously dominated these contracts under the Phase 2 program initiated in 2020. Blue Origin had competed for the Phase 2 contract and, following an unsuccessful bid, protested the decision.

Blue Origin's New Glenn heavy lift reusable rocket, which has been in development for nearly a decade, is scheduled for its first orbital flight later this year. The rocket is currently undergoing extensive testing.

The NSSL Phase 3 program is divided into two lanes. Lane 1 covers less demanding launches to low Earth orbit, while Lane 2 is dedicated to heavy lift rockets capable of delivering payloads to nine reference orbits, including the most challenging national security missions.

The selection of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and ULA for Lane 1 contracts suggests that no other bidders met the required criteria. According to the Department of Defense, seven bids were submitted.

“As we anticipated, the pool of awardees is small this year because many companies are still maturing their launch capabilities. Our strategy accounted for this by allowing on-ramp opportunities every year, and we expect increasing competition and diversity as new providers and systems complete development.” - Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, Program Executive Officer for Assured Access to Space

The next opportunity for providers to on-ramp will occur in the first quarter of fiscal year 2025. Potential new entrants include Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, and Firefly Aerospace, which are all developing medium lift rockets for Lane 1 missions.

As part of the Phase 3 contract, Blue Origin will receive $5 million to conduct an initial capabilities assessment of its mission assurance. SpaceX and ULA will each receive $1.5 million due to their status as incumbent Phase 2 providers. Earlier this year, the Space Force awarded Blue Origin nearly $18 million for early integration studies to assess the capabilities of the New Glenn rocket.

Initial Task Orders and Launch Diversity Goals

The first task order opportunity in Phase 3 Lane 1 will include seven U.S. Space Force Space Development Agency launches and one for the National Reconnaissance Office.

“Any launch provider on the base contract can bid for launch service task orders provided they have completed a successful orbital launch prior to the proposal due date.” - Space Force

The Space Force aims to diversify its launch providers to enhance competition and reduce launch costs while ensuring reliable access to space through redundant capabilities.

“The NSSL Phase 3 launch service procurement contracts provide the opportunity to include the most current domestic commercial innovation into our launch program as soon it becomes available,” - Frank Calvelli, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration.

The selection process for Lane 2 providers is expected to conclude this fall.

“The government intends to award up to three contracts for the NSSL Phase 3 Lane 2 Launch Service Procurement.”

These contracts will involve missions requiring full mission assurance with NSSL-certified launch vehicles, demanding higher performance launch systems for more complex orbits.

The awarding of the NSSL Phase 3 contracts marks a pivotal moment for Blue Origin, SpaceX, and ULA, signaling increased competition and innovation in the U.S. national security space launch sector. With a focus on reducing costs and ensuring reliable access to space, the Space Force's strategic approach is poised to drive advancements and diversification in the years ahead.