The U.S. Space Force is going to send its military hardware into space on SpaceX and United Launch Alliance rockets.
The Department of Defense announced the two companies beat out Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman for the $653 million National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract for missions planned from 2023-2028 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
ULA, which will be using its next-generation Vulcan Centaur rockets landed the larger portion, $337 million, for 60% of the launch services with SpaceX, which will continue to use its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, landing $316 million.
“This was an extremely tough decision and I appreciate the hard work 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 the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center’s Launch Enterprise. “I look forward to working with ULA and SpaceX as we progress toward our first Phase 2 launches.”
The contract announcement is using money set aside for at least 25 missions from fiscal 2020-2024, that will be flown starting in early 2023 and expected to run through March 2028.
Concurrent with the announcement was the assignment of the first three missions in collaboration with the National Reconnaissance Office, USSF-51 and USSF-106 for ULA and USSF-67 for SpaceX, all planned for 2023 liftoffs.
Left out of the lucrative deal were Blue Origin’s in-the-works New Glenn rocket and Northrop Grumman’s in-development OmegA rocket.
ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman received millions in grants from the Air Force in 2018 to pursue their rocket development while SpaceX has moved forward on its own.
All four rocket designs feature engines built in the U.S., and not Russian-built RD-180 engines such as those currently used ULA’s Atlas launches. ULA’s Vulcan, like Blue Origin’s New Glenn and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA are all expected to have their first test launches in 2021.
‘ULA’s Vulcan Centaur is actually going to be using a Blue Origin engine, though, the BE-4, currently in development.
“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,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO in a press release. “For decades, we have been a trusted partner to safely and securely deliver strategic national security space assets for our nation’s defense and this award shows the continued confidence of our customer in the commitment and dedication of our people to safeguard these missions by reliably launching our country’s most critical and challenging missions.”
SpaceX’s Falcon rockets are the only rockets to already have achieved national security certification.
“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. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space. Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department off Russian RD-180 engines.”
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