The Department of Defense is sticking with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as its two primary launch services for U.S. national security missions for the foreseeable future.
In an announcement Friday (Aug. 7), U.S. Space Force and Air Force officials said SpaceX and ULA have won military launch contracts potentially worth billions to launch national security payloads over the next five years, with ULA receiving 60% of the satellite launch contracts and SpaceX receiving 40%.
The awards were part of a four-way launch services competition known as National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement announced in 2018. SpaceX and ULA were up against Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.
SpaceX was actually left out of the first round, with the Air Force awarding development dollars to ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin in the amount of $967 million, $792 million and $500 million respectively. But the California-based rocket builder ultimately won a piece of the prize.
"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," Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise, said in a statement.
The Air Force selected SpaceX's existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket for national security launches, along with ULA's new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is still in development. Currently estimated to make its first flight in 2021, ULA's Vulcan Centaur will end the country's reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine currently used by the company's current workhorse, the Atlas V rocket.
The Department of Defense has been trying to end reliance on the Russian engine and awarded ULA the first-round development funding to help develop the new rocket. The Vulcan Centaur will be powered by a Blue Origin BE-4 engine.
So far, the Air Force has ordered three missions for 2022 under the new deals. SpaceX will earn $316 million to launch one mission, designated USSF-67, in the latter part of 2022. ULA was awarded $337 million to launch two missions — USSF-51 and USSF-106 — scheduled for the second and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2022, respectively.
Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman both expressed disappointment for not being chosen in the phase 2 contracts, but are expected to continue development of their respective launch vehicles. Blue Origin is currently developing a new orbital rocket, the New Glenn, while Northrop Grumman is developing the OmegA booster for future launches.
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Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined Space.com as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.