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Air Force to end agreements with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, prepares for launch contract protests

WASHINGTON — The Air Force made the call to stick with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as its launch providers for the next five years. Now it has to decide if and how to continue working with the companies that lost the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 competition — Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman.

An issue at hand is the termination of the Launch Service Agreement contracts that the Air Force awarded in October 2018 to Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, as well as to ULA.

The purpose of the agreements was to help Phase 2 competitors pay for launch vehicle development and infrastructure. Blue Origin received $500 million; Northrop Grumman $792 million and ULA $967 million. The funds were to be spread out through 2024, and the Air Force from the beginning said the LSAs would be terminated with those companies that did not win a Phase 2 procurement contract.

Despite political pressure to not end the LSAs, the agreements will be terminated, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper said Aug. 7 during a video conference with reporters.

“We will work with those two companies to determine the right point to tie off their work under the LSA agreements,” Roper said. The intent of the LSAs “was to create a more competitive environment leading into Phase 2,” he said. “The point is not to carry them indefinitely.”

LSA funds supported the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA launch vehicle. ULA will continue to receive funds for its Vulcan Centaur vehicle. SpaceX was not awarded an LSA contract.

Before the LSAs are terminated, said Roper, “We have to determine what work has been done and what rights to the data the government has. We want to make sure we retain those.”

Roper said a key reason why the LSAs could not continue for all three companies is that the Air Force doesn’t have enough money in the budget.

A RAND report commissioned by the Air Force warned that ending the LSAs could leave the Air Force with fewer industry competitors able to challenge ULA and SpaceX in 2024 when Phase 3 of the National Security Space Launch program is scheduled to begin.

RAND said cutting off financial support could drive companies to abandon certification efforts to qualify commercial launch vehicle for national security launch. The report said this has national security implications because if a U.S. launch company dropped out of the market, a foreign competitor is likely to emerge to try to fill the gap.

Roper said the Air Force plans to continue to support U.S. industry but the specifics have yet to be worked out, Roper said. “We will discuss this with Capitol Hill for Phase 3.”

Roper said he agreed with RAND’s take that it would be “in the government’s best interest to have three or more viable systems to compete for Phase 3.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act include provisions for the Air Force to create new partnerships with the launch industry similar to the LSAs.

Possibility of legal protests

Before the Air Force can move forward and start planning Phase 2 missions with SpaceX and ULA, it is preparing for the possibility of a legal protest over the Aug. 7 awards.

Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman issued statements on Friday expressing disappointment in the Air Force’s selection. Any decision to file a protest would be made after the companies are briefed by the Air Force on why their bids didn’t make the cut.

“We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer,” 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.”

The company intends to stay in the launch market regardless, Smith said. “We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts.”

Northrop Grumman said the company is “confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected our extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer.”

Surprising price tag for SpaceX mission

The selection of SpaceX and ULA was not surprising given their experience. “This ended exactly how everyone expected,” said one industry source.

What nobody expected was the price tag for SpaceX’s first Phase 2 mission awarded on Aug. 7.

SpaceX was awarded a $316 million contract to launch USSF-67, a mission scheduled for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022. ULA was awarded a $337 million contract to launch two missions — USSF-51 and USSF-106 — scheduled for the second and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2022, respectively.

Roper during the call with reporters was asked to explain why SpaceX is being paid nearly the same amount for one mission that ULA is getting for two missions. Roper declined to comment on that issue, and said these launches are classified missions.

The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees launch procurements, said in a statement to SpaceNews that both contracts include funding for support costs in addition to the price that the companies bid for the launch services.

“The awarded task order includes the first year of Launch Service Support, and the prices for the individual missions ordered from each respective company,” SMC said. “These prices were proposed by companies as part of the Phase 2 acquisition, and they reflect significant savings when compared to historical pricing from previous NSSL launch acquisitions.”

The additional payment to launch providers — which one industry source estimated at about $100 million per company — was unexpected. It is reminiscent of the “ELC” funding that the Air Force used to pay ULA and was criticized by SpaceX as government subsidies that commercial companies don’t get.

ELC is short for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Launch Capabilities, which the Air Force awarded yearly to ULA for infrastructure and engineering support. ELC was discontinued in 2019 and the Air Force said it would transition to commercially based pricing.

Based on the value of the Aug. 7 contract, the SpaceX contract is likely for a Falcon Heavy launch. An industry analyst who asked to not be quoted by name said the $316 million launch contract, even if $100 million is for support costs, is very large considering the pricing that SpaceX has offered for Falcon Heavy. The company in February won a Falcon Heavy contract for a NASA asteroid mission in 2022 valued at $117 million, which includes the launch itself and other mission-related costs.

SpaceX has not commented on social media or issued any statements following the Air Force’s announcement that it was selected as a Phase 2 provider.

The Air Force awarded ULA 60% of the Phase 2 missions to be flown over five years, and 40% will go to SpaceX. According to several sources, SpaceX believes it should have won the 60% share because it has operational and certified vehicles, whereas ULA’s Vulcan Centaur is still in development and is expected to fly for the first time in 2021.

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ULA, SpaceX win landmark multibillion-dollar launch agreements with Pentagon

Artist’s concept of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance and SpaceX beat out Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for billions of dollars in U.S. military rocket contracts, and will share the load in launching the Pentagon’s highest-priority national security space missions through 2027, officials announced Friday.

ULA, the 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will get 60 percent of the military’s most critical satellite launch contracts awarded through late 2024 for missions that will take off between 2022 and late 2027. SpaceX will receive 40 percent of the national security launch contracts over the same period, the Pentagon said.

The Pentagon did not select proposals submitted by Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin.

The agreements cover contracts to launch satellites for the U.S. Space Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Missile Defense Agency, and other military services and agencies, providing an anchor customer for SpaceX and ULA.

“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 Will Roper, assistant secretary of the U.S. 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.”

The agreements with ULA and SpaceX are part of Phase 2 of the Pentagon’s effort to transition military satellite launches off of rockets using Russian-made RD-180 engines, and onto vehicles with U.S.-built engines. ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket has launched more national security satellites than any other rocket currently in service, and its first stage is powered by the RD-180 engine.

The procurement strategy is also intended to reduce launch costs for the Pentagon.

“We have been stuck on Russian RD-180 engines for too long,” Roper said Friday in a conference call with reporters. It is a risk to our national security, so many years ago the Air Force decided to create an acquisition strategy to get us through the sole-source environment that we were in with a single rocket provider, and still tied to Russian engines, (and) build up a competitive U.S. industry base that would ultimately culminate in today, in a Phase 2 award to two vendors.”

The announcement Friday also marked the end of a hard-fought competition between four major players in the U.S. space industry for a chance at billions of dollars in revenue from lucrative military launch contracts.

ULA is developing the next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, with all U.S.-made engines, to replace its Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, and SpaceX offered the Pentagon its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets already in service, albeit with some modifications to meet the military’s demanding launch requirements.

“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.

“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,” Bruno said in a statement.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment Friday on the Pentagon launch contract award.

Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle were also in the running.

Despite losing out on the Phase 2 awards with their own rockets, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin will still get business through national security launches. Northrop Grumman will supply solid rocket boosters and Blue Origin will build BE-4 main engines for ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“We evaluated every proposal by the published award criteria, technical factors being first and foremost, then followed by past performance, their ability to work with small business, and then finally totally evaluated price,” Roper said. “Every proposal is evaluated. We call the ball and strikes as they are, and the ability to meet those technical factors — to do the mission –is the most important thing above all.”

For nearly a decade, the Pentagon awarded sole-source national security launch contracts to ULA, which builds and operates the fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets that have delivered to orbit nearly all of the military’s large reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, navigation and missile warning satellites currently in use.

But rising launch costs, pressure from upstart SpaceX, and worsening diplomatic relations with Russia prompted the Air Force to rethink its rocket procurement strategy for the military’s highest-priority space missions. Congress also passed a law in 2014 — after Russia’s annexation of Crimea — that capped the number of RD-180 engines the military could use to launch national security satellites before transitioning to a rocket with U.S.-made propulsion.

File photo of a Falcon Heavy launch in April 2019. Credit: SpaceX

The highest-priority class of payloads was previously part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program. Last year, military officials renamed the EELV program as the National Security Space Launch, or NSSL, program as the Pentagon moved into a new era of launch services, which include reusable rockets.

The Air Force ended competition for its EELV-class missions when the Pentagon approved the Boeing and Lockheed Martin consolidation in 2006, a decision ULA and military officials said was necessary to ensure the survival of the Atlas and Delta rocket families to launch U.S. national security satellites.

Pentagon officials say the military needs two independent launchers to ensure crucial payloads can get to space even if one of the rockets is grounded.

The Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security satellites in 2015, a process the military promised to speed up after SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force the previous year protesting the Pentagon’s $11 billion “block buy” sole-source order of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets in 2013.

Military officials made more launch contracts available for competition between ULA and SpaceX in an intermediate “Phase 1A” procurement round before moving on to Phase 2, which required rockets use only U.S.-made engines.

The Air Force awarded funding to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance in 2016 as part of cost-sharing public-private partnerships with industry to advance research and development of new U.S. rocket propulsion systems.

In 2018, the Air Force selected Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance for the next round of launch service agreement awards. Those agreements were cumulatively valued at around $2.3 billion.

SpaceX, which was the only company competing with a rocket already flying, was left out of the development contracts awarded in 2018.

The Pentagon also announced Friday the first three firm-fixed-price launch contracts awarded by the U.S. Space Force under the NSSL program’s Phase 2 agreements.

Two of those missions, designated USSF-51 and USSF-106, were awarded to ULA for launches in the the first quarter and third quarter of calendar year 2022. SpaceX won a task order to launch the USSF-67 mission in the third quarter of calendar year 2022.

ULA received $337 million in the task orders announced Friday, while SpaceX was awarded $316 million.

If ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, which scheduled to debut in 2021, is not certified for the national security missions in 2022, ULA could offer an Atlas 5 rocket — with its Russian-made engine — as an alternative for the USSF-51 and USSF-106 missions.

A contract announcement posted on a Defense Department website said the 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.”

Roper said of the 18 RD-180 engines Congress has allowed the Pentagon to buy through 2022 for national security missions, 12 remain available for purchase. There’s no prohibition on when the engines can actually launch a national security mission, just that the Pentagon can’t procure any more launches using the RD-180 engines after 2022.

“By the end of ’22, we cannot buy any more RD-180 engines,” Roper said. “We do have 12 engines that are available should we need to use those engines beyond the ’22 mark. We’re allowed to use them. We’re just allowed to purchase more. So the reason that this Phase 2 award weighted technical performance — technical merit — as the No. 1 priority is that we have to ensure that we get off of those engines.

“I’m very confident with the selection that we have made today that we have a very low risk path to get off the RD-180 engines on time and to not have to dip into that surplus that we have available, though we’re glad to know it’s there should we need it.”

The three task orders unveiled Friday are just the tip of the iceberg for ULA and SpaceX, which stand to compete head-to-head for dozens more national security launches contracts over the next four years. The U.S. Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, will order launch services annually from ULA and SpaceX, the military said in a statement.

Roper said military officials estimated SMC would order 32 to 34 national security launches during the five-year period covered by the Phase 2 agreements. But there is some uncertainty in that number, Roper said.

“It is an indefinite quantity contract because we wanted to be ready for a number of launches that can be in flux,” Roper said Friday.

That will help ensure ULA and SpaceX can relay on a steady “drum beat” of launches for the Pentagon, supplementing commercial missions on their launch manifests, he said.

“So there’s no ceiling on this contract,” Roper said. “It’s driven by the number of launches that we and the NRO, and organizations like the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Development Agency need.

“We’re very excited within the Space Force to provide a launch capability to the entire department that its dependable and reliable, and we look forward to building on the 81-out-81 mission success that the Air Force, and now the Space Force, has provided over the past years,” Roper said.

Artist’s illustration of Northrop Grumman’s planned OmegA rocket, which lost out in the Pentagon’s Phase 2 launch contract awards. The OmegA rocket’s design is based on two solid-fueled core stages and a liquid-fueled upper stage. Credit: Northrop Grumman

While SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have the lift capacity to meet the Pentagon’s launch requirements, which include access to unusual, hard-to-reach orbits, there will be some changes on the launch vehicles and ground systems to accommodate the new missions.

For the Pentagon’s Phase 2 missions, SpaceX did not propose using the company’s next-generation Starship launch vehicle.

“It’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, no Starship,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, last year. “We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need.

“There are more data requirements they’re asking for, some additional inspection, some additional stuff that’s new to Phase 2,” she said. “I believe some of the reference orbits have slightly more mass to each orbit. But Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are beasts as they are.”

The most significant upgrades SpaceX plans for the Phase 2 missions are the construction of a new moveable gantry on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where the company launches powerful Falcon Heavy rockets. The mobile tower will sit just to the north of the pad’s launch mount, enabling SpaceX to satisfy military requirements to vertically integrate sensitive top secret spy satellites.

Read our earlier story for details on the dimensions and requirement for the gantry.

SpaceX will also introduce a larger payload envelope to fit some of the biggest satellites that need to be launched on the Phase 2 missions. The company could expand its Falcon 9 launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to accommodate the Falcon Heavy, which uses three Falcon 9 first stage boosters bolted together.

The NSSL missions include the military’s most expensive and critical payloads, such as school bus-sized spy satellites, nuclear-hardened communications satellites to link the president with military commanders, spacecraft to detect enemy missile launches, and the GPS navigation fleet used around the world.

The Space Force has other launch procurement mechanisms to award launch service contracts for smaller missions, such as technology demonstration satellites.

Roper said the Pentagon will work with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to wind down their work under the launch service agreements awarded in 2018.

“The goal is not to carry them indefinitely,” Roper said. “So we will tie off the (launch service agreement) contracts as soon as we can at a point that makes sense. We want to make sure that work that’s in flux, that we’re able to document that … Where the government has rights to the data and the work, we want to make sure that we retain those.”

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said it was disappointed in the Pentagon’s decision to go with ULA and SpaceX for the Phase 2 awards.

“We are confident we submitted a strong proposal that reflected out extensive space launch experience and provided value to our customer, and we are looking forward to our debriefing from the customer,” Northrop Grumman said.

The fate of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket program is uncertain. Building on its recent acquisition of Orbital ATK, the defense contractor designed the OmegA launch vehicle to be profitable with just a handful of launches per year, with an emphasis on capabilities aimed at the U.S. military’s requirements.

In recent months, construction crews have been assembling a tower on a mobile launch platform for the OmegA rocket at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said in an interview in June that qualification test-firings of the OmegA rocket’s solid-fueled stages were completed, and engineers were gearing up for a test-firing of the launcher’s hydrogen-fueled upper stage before the end of this year.

Precourt said in June that the OmegA rocket was on schedule to be ready for its first test launch from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in mid-2021. But that assumed Northrop Grumman would win a Phase 2 award from the Pentagon.

Blue Origin says development of its New Glenn rocket will continue in pursuit of business in the commercial and civil space markets.

The huge privately-developed rocket is the largest of all the launchers that were part of the Phase 2 competition. Capable of deploying up to 99,000 pounds, or 45 metric tons, to low Earth orbit, the New Glenn will have a reusable first stage powered by seven BE-4 engines.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket will have two methane-fueled BE-4 engines on its first stage.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon.com, established Blue Origin in 2000. Bezos is funding the development of the New Glenn rocket, which is estimated to cost more than $2.5 billion, including construction of a huge factory near the Kennedy Space Center and a launch pad and test facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, said the company was disappointed the New Glenn was not selected for a Phase 2 launch service procurement contract.

“We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer,” Smith said. “Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period.

“We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts,” Smith said. “We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S security.”

The Pentagon plans to open another competition for a Phase 2 launch service procurement later in the 2020s.

“We don’t think that this is the last round of innovation that we’re going see, and though we’re excited for the next five years of Phase 2, we’re looking ahead to Phase 3 five years from now, and are just wondering what new leap-ahead, lower-cost technologies might be on the forefront to make assured access to space not just assured, but cheaper,” Roper said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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News Analysis | With Pentagon award, SpaceX joins the establishment

LC-39A mobile service tower

WASHINGTON — Six years ago, SpaceX was the upstart launch company seeking to break United Launch Alliance’s monopoly on national security space launches. Now, it’s part of the establishment.

When the U.S. Air Force announced Aug. 7 that SpaceX and ULA would split the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 contracts for launches between 2022 and 2027, it cemented SpaceX’s position in the government launch market, one that it went to court not that long ago to enter.

In 2014, frustrated with the Air Force’s award of a block buy contract to ULA for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, SpaceX filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that some of those launches should be competed. The Air Force countered that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 vehicle was not yet certified and thus could not compete.

“New entrants have to fight every day,” recalled Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, during a panel discussion at the Satellite 2020 conference in March. “If we’re entering a market where we weren’t before, the folks that are in the existing market are going to be upset and they’re going to make sure you have as difficult a road as you possibly can.”

SpaceX dropped the lawsuit in early 2015 after winning concessions from the Air Force, such as speeding up certification of the Falcon 9 and making more launches available for competition. SpaceX has since won several launch contracts for national security missions, which have included the launch of a GPS 3 satellite June 30.

Around the same time that SpaceX sued to win access to the national security launch market, the souring of U.S.-Russian relations raised concerns about continued reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine used by the Atlas 5, particularly when Russian officials threatened to ban exports of the engine in response to Western sanctions of Russia. That started a process to end reliance on the RD-180 that culminated in the NSSL Phase 2 competition.

SpaceX, once considered an unproven new entrant, went into this competition as something of an incumbent. It was the only one of the four bidders that offered vehicles flying today: Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. SpaceX instead made more incremental changes, such as an extended payload fairing. It will also build a mobile service tower at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in order to support vertical processing required for some national security payloads.

“We fought hard to enter this market and we really hope we can continue,” Shotwell said at Satellite 2020. “We have done a good job building a launch vehicle that can serve many markets.”

ULA may have fought SpaceX when that company tried to get into a market the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture had dominated for years. However, it also adapted to the changing market and the competition under the leadership of Tory Bruno, who became president and chief executive of the company in 2014. ULA has spent the last several years working on a next-generation rocket, Vulcan, that will ultimately replace both the Atlas and Delta and end reliance on the RD-180.

Although Vulcan is new, ULA’s long record of working in national security launch made it a front-runner, and Bruno was confident that ULA’s track record would overcome any uncertainty about a new launch vehicle. On that Satellite 2020 panel, he predicted the global launch market could sustain four large vehicles, of which one would be Russian and another European.

“Thank goodness that leaves two for the U.S. because we want to have assured access via two providers,” he said. “That is the right number, and that is why the Air Force will select two this summer. It’ll be ULA and one of my colleagues up here.”

The two losers in the competition, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, face different fates. Blue Origin’s development of New Glenn, which company executives have estimated to cost $2.5 billion, has been funded by company founder Jeff Bezos, who has leveraged his massive Amazon.com wealth to support a long-term vision of millions of people living and working in space.

That vision is unlikely to be derailed by losing a single government contract. Work continues on both the New Glenn rocket and a launch complex at Cape Canaveral, not far from where the company built a large factory for building the rocket. Blue Origin is also still involved in the NSSL Phase 2 program as a supplier to ULA: the BE-4 engine it developed will be used on the first stage of Vulcan, as well as its own New Glenn rocket.

The future of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket is less clear, though, without having a base of national security launch contracts. Company executives have emphasized that its use of hardware for the rocket with ties to other programs, like the Space Launch System, make it possible for the vehicle’s business case to close with just a handful of launches a year.

“OmegA is not a rocket seeking multiple payloads, it’s a rocket built on the margins of a number of other businesses we have,” Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems at Northrop Grumman, said on that Satellite 2020 panel.

“We’re doing synergies to make sure that we can sustain very, very low flight rates, lower than you could traditionally see in a launch vehicle provider,” he said. However, it’s unclear if that business case can still close without the U.S. government as an anchor customer.

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Breaking News | Pentagon picks SpaceX and ULA to remain its primary launch providers

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Air Force announced Aug. 7 that incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX have been selected to receive five-year contracts totaling $653 million to launch national security satellites for the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

United Launch Alliance received a $337 million contract and SpaceX received a $316 million contract for launches planned between between fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2027, according to the Pentagon’s announcement. The U.S. government’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The companies beat Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman in the four-way competition known as the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.

SpaceX and ULA will collectively will fly as many as 34 missions for the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office under the firm-fixed-price, indefinite-delivery contracts.

“Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space,” Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters.

Roper said the Phase 2 awards mark a pivotal point in the transition of the national security launch program to take advantage of commercial innovation and private investments in launch vehicles.

“Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department of Defense off Russian RD-180 engines,” he said.

The shift to new launch vehicles also is compelled by a legislative mandate to end the Pentagon’s reliance on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket which has the Russian RD-180 as its main engine. By law, DoD will not be allowed to buy Atlas 5 launches after Dec. 31, 2022.

In Phase 2 ULA will get 60 percent of the missions, and SpaceX will get 40 percent. The Air Force will assign specific rockets on a yearly basis depending on the required missions.

The Air Force has insisted that it is not committing to buying a preset number of launches. The estimate of 34 missions for the covered five-year period could change as priorities and budgets fluctuate from year to year

The high-stakes Phase 2 competition officially started in May 2019 when the U.S. Air Force released the final solicitation for bids. Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance all submitted bids in August 2019. ULA and SpaceX are incumbent launch providers, whereas Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are new entrants.

ULA is developing a new vehicle for Phase 2, the Vulcan Centaur, a two-stage heavy-lift launch vehicle with the main stage powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.

SpaceX offered the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the only certified vehicles that competed in Phase 2.

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ULA, SpaceX win contracts to launch satellites for SES in 2022

File photo of a previous Atlas 5 launch in the “531” configuration with three solid rocket boosters. Credit: United Launch Alliance

SES has selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch up to five new commercial C-band communications satellites from Cape Canaveral in 2022 aboard Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets, officials announced Wednesday.

Two Boeing-built communications satellites will launch together on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, and two telecom craft made by Northrop Grumman will launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, according to SES, a global communications satellite operator based in Luxembourg.

The SES 18 and 19 satellites, based on Northrop Grumman’s GEOStar 3 satellite platform, will launch stacked together on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in 2022, SES said. SES also awarded SpaceX a contract to launch another C-band satellite if required.

The SES 20 and 21 communications satellites are slated to launch in tandem aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, also in 2022, SES said.

SES ordered the four satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June to replace C-band capacity being transitioned to 5G cellular network services by the Federal Communications Commission. At the same time, Intelsat ordered six new C-band communications satellites from Maxar and Northrop Grumman as part of its C-band transition plan. Launch services contracts for the new Intelsat satellites have not been announced.

SES said it considered only U.S. launchers when awarding the launch services contracts, and having the new satellites in geostationary orbit on time is a high priority. That essentially left ULA and SpaceX as the only companies eligible for the contracts.

Financial terms for the launch contracts were not disclosed by SES, SpaceX, or ULA.

Suzanne Ong, an SES spokesperson, said the division of launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX — rivals in the U.S. launch business — fit the different offerings provided by the Atlas 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

The Atlas 5 rocket will deploy the SES 20 and 21 satellites into a higher orbit, utilizing the long-duration, multiple-restart capability of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage. That will place the satellites closer to their final operating positions in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles (nearly 36,000 kilometers) over the equator.

SES 20 and 21 will be built by Boeing and based on the Boeing 702SP spacecraft bus with all-electric propulsion. Electric thrusters are more efficient than conventional rocket engines, allowing the satellite to need less fuel during its mission. That results in a lighter satellite.

But the electric thrusters do not have as much thrust as a liquid-fueled thruster, so it takes longer for a satellite with all-electric propulsion to reach geostationary orbit.

“The Boeing 702SP satellites, relying only on electrical propulsion, would take longer to reach designated geostationary orbit if launched on SpaceX,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “This is the reason why ULA is launching Boeing satellites and SpaceX is launching the NG (Northrop Grumman) satellites.”

Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson, said the SES 20 and 21 satellites will launch on the “531” variant of the Atlas 5 rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing and three strap-on solid rocket boosters. That configuration has flown three times to date, and is set to launch a fourth time in September with a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

File photo of a Falcon 9 launch from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: SpaceX

“Clearing mid-band spectrum expeditiously while protecting cable neighborhoods across America is a huge undertaking and one that requires partners that can deliver mission success and schedule assurance,” said Steve Collar, CEO at SES. “We are thrilled to be working with ULA again and partnering to meet the FCC’s ambitious timeline for the accelerated clearing of C-band spectrum.”

“We are pleased SES selected ULA and our proven Atlas 5 for this important commercial launch service,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. “Atlas 5 is known for its unmatched level of schedule certainty and reliability and this launch is critical to the timely clearing of C-band spectrum, empowering America’s accelerated implementation of 5G.

“ULA’s legacy of performance, precision and mission design flexibility allow us to deliver a tailored launch service that minimizes orbit raising time and perfectly meet our customer’s requirements,” Bruno said in a statement. “We are thrilled to provide this optimized launch solution to SES for this crucial launch.”

Two SES satellites have launched on previous Atlas 5 rocket missions in 2004 and 2006. ULA now has two commercial launches in its Atlas 5 backlog, along with a ViaSat 3 broadband payload due to fly on the most power Atlas 5 configuration with five solid rocket boosters.

The Northrop Grumman-built SES 18 and 19 satellites will use a combination of electric and liquid propulsion for post-launch orbit-raising maneuvers.

“We have a deep and trusted relationship with SpaceX having been the first to launch a commercial satellite with them and subsequently the first commercial company to adopt the flight-proven booster and we could not be more confident in their ability to deliver on this time-critical mission,” Collar said in a statement.

Six SES satellites have launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets to date.

“SES is one of SpaceX‘s most-valued partners, and we are proud of their continued trust in our capabilities to reliably deliver their satellites to orbit,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We are excited to once again play a role in executing SES’s solutions to meet their customers’ needs.”

SES will soon order two additional C-band satellites from U.S. manufacturers as ground spares. The contract option with SpaceX to place a third C-band satellite into orbit would cover the launch of one of the ground spares, Ong said.

“The ground spares will only be launched if there is a systematic problem that delays the satellite construction, or if there is a launch failure or any other issue that puts the accelerated clearing schedule at risk,” Ong said in response to questions from Spaceflight Now. “In case of a launch failure, SpaceX will launch one of the other C-band satellites that SES will order soon.”

The four SES satellites are part of the Federal Communications Commission’s order finalized earlier this year to clear 300 megahertz of C-band spectrum for the roll-out of 5G mobile connectivity networks.

The FCC plans to auction U.S. C-band spectrum — currently used for satellite-based video broadcast services to millions of customers — to 5G operators in December. In compensation for losing the spectrum, Intelsat is set to receive $4.87 billion and SES will get $3.97 billion from 5G bidders if they can accelerate the transition of C-band services to a smaller swath of spectrum by December 2023, two years before the FCC’s mandated deadline.

Artist’s concept of the SES 20 and SES 21 communications satellites to be manufactured by Boeing. Credit: Boeing

Intelsat and SES — along with operators with a smaller share of the U.S. C-band market — will also be reimbursed for their C-band relocation costs, including satellite manufacturing and launch expenses.

As part of the agreement, the satellite operators were incentivized to buy new C-band broadcasting satellites from U.S. manufacturers to operate in the 4.0 to 4.2 gigahertz swath of the C-band spectrum. The lower portion of the band previously allocated to satellite operators — 3.7 to 4.0 megahertz — is being transitioned to 5G services.

Ong said the ground spares SES is set to order soon will be available to launch on short notice to ensure SES can meet the FCC’s deadline to clear the upper part of the C-band spectrum for 5G services.

When it ordered the four new satellites from Boeing and Northrop Grumman in June, SES said each satellite will have 10 primary transponders, plus back-up equipment, to deliver television services to more than 120 million homes and enable other critical data services. At that time, SES said the satellites are scheduled for launch in the third quarter of 2022.

SES said in May that its board of directors approved an investment envelope of $1.6 billion to procure and launch the new C-band satellites, and pay for other equipment and services, such as signal filters on ground antennas, to accommodate the C-band transition to 5G services.

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Commercial launch industry off to slow start in 2020

Falcon 9 Starlink launch April 2020

WASHINGTON — The first half of 2020 has been sluggish for the commercial launch industry, but its problems can’t be explained solely by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to statistics compiled by SpaceNews, there were 45 orbital launch attempts in first six months of 2020, including four failed launches. That would put the overall launch industry on a pace for 90 launches in the year, somewhat less than the 102 launches attempted in 2019.

Of those 45 launches, just over half — 23 — were carried out or otherwise brokered by Western launch companies. That includes Arianespace, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), Northrop Grumman, Rocket Lab, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance and Virgin Orbit. The rest were performed by Chinese organizations, the Russian government and Iran.

Most of those 23 launches, though, were not for commercial customers. Arianespace performed two Ariane 5 launches early in the year that carried either commercial communications satellites or government satellites whose launches were commercially competed. It also brokered two Soyuz launches of OneWeb satellites before OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March.

Other launch companies have relied on government or internal customers. MHI’s two H-2 launches have been for the Japanese government, one carrying a reconnaissance satellite and the other an HTV cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station. Northrop Grumman’s sole Antares launch was also an ISS cargo mission. ULA has performed three Atlas 5 launches, two carrying payloads for the U.S. military and the other the ESA/NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft.

On the small launch vehicle market, Rocket Lab has carried out two Electron launches to date, with the National Reconnaissance Office the primary customer in both cases. Virgin Orbit’s first LauncherOne launch May 25, which failed to reach orbit, carried a demonstration payload only.

Among Western launch companies, SpaceX has been the most active, with 10 Falcon 9 launches so far. However, seven of those launches have been for the company’s own Starlink satellites, and did not generate any launch revenue beyond a small amount from carrying three SkySat secondary payloads for Planet on the most recent Starlink mission June 13. The other three launches were for U.S. government customers: an ISS cargo spacecraft, the Demo-2 commercial crew mission and the June 30 launch of a GPS 3 satellite for the U.S. Space Force.

The lack of commercial launches can be blamed in part on the pandemic. Some companies, like Arianespace and Rocket Lab, temporarily suspended launch operations because of government restrictions. A SpaceX launch of Argentina’s SAOCOM 1B satellite, which was commercially procured, was postponed this spring because of international travel restrictions.

The pandemic alone, though, is not responsible for the dearth of launches. “I think it would have been a rough year, no matter what,” said Janice Starzyk, vice president of commercial space at Bryce Space and Technology, in a July 1 interview.

That assessment is based on the sharp drop in orders for commercial geostationary orbit communications satellites in recent years. That decline in orders is showing up now as a lack of launches. “2020 was going to be a fairly slow year,” she said. “There just weren’t that many satellites ordered to launch this year.”

Starzyk said she did not expect an uptick in commercial launch activity in the rest of the year given that lack of orders. Another factor is OneWeb’s bankruptcy, which has halted what was to be a steady cadence of launches this year.

There are some signs of renewed commercial launch activity. Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch, scheduled for July 5, will carry a set of commercial satellites for Canon, Planet and In-Space Missions. Arianespace will resume Ariane 5 launches in late July with satellites for Intelsat and B-SAT, while a long-delayed Vega launch carrying dozens of smallsats is now scheduled for mid-August. SpaceX is expected to launch Anasis 2, a South Korean military satellite whose launch was commercially procured, in July as well.

Looking beyond 2020, there’s been an increase in commercial GEO satellite orders, including 10 C-band satellites ordered in recent weeks by Intelsat and SES as part of the FCC effort to clear satellite C-band spectrum for use by terrestrial 5G systems. While no launch contracts have been announced yet for those satellites, Starzyk said it’s likely Intelsat and SES have already arranged launches for them to ensure that the companies can meet the FCC’s deadlines for clearing that spectrum.

“It’s going to be a decent year” for the launch industry overall, she said. “It’s not going to be a great year, but it’s not going to be a horrible year.”

SpaceNews.com

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NASA signs Gateway habitat design contract with Northrop Grumman

Artist’s illustration of the Gateway’s PPE and HALO modules in lunar orbit. Credit: NASA

NASA has signed a $187 million contract with Northrop Grumman to complete the preliminary design of a pressurized crew habitat for the planned Gateway mini-space station near the moon, and agency officials have discussed new details about plans to launch first two Gateway modules on a single heavy-lift rocket.

The contract with Northrop Grumman announced June 5 covers Northrop Grumman’s work to design the Gateway’s habitation and logistics outpost, or HALO, module. The pressurized cabin will offer expanded living quarters for astronauts arriving at the Gateway on NASA’s Orion crew capsule.

“This contract award is another significant milestone in our plan to build robust and sustainable lunar operations,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a statement. “The Gateway is a key component of NASA’s long-term Artemis architecture and the HALO capability furthers our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for future human missions to Mars.”

The $187 contract announced June 5 will carry Northrop Grumman’s work on the HALO element through a preliminary design review scheduled for the end of 2020. NASA announced last year that it would award a sole-source contract with Northrop Grumman for the HALO, but a firm agreement was not announced until this month.

NASA said it will sign a separate contract with Northrop Grumman for the fabrication and assembly of the HALO for integration with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element, a solar-powered spacecraft with electric thrusters being built by Maxar Technologies.

The Gateway is part of NASA’s Artemis moon program, which aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface before the end of 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. But NASA says the Gateway is unlikely to be part of the program’s first crewed lunar landing mission, which is expected to involve a direct link-up between an Orion crew capsule and a human-rated lunar lander around the moon, without going through the Gateway.

The HALO will be derived from Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus supply ship that flies cargo to the International Space Station. With a pressure shell made in Italy by Thales Alenia Space, the Gateway’s first habitat module will be outfitted with additional docking ports and command and control capabilities, including upgraded environmental control and life support systems, according to Northrop Grumman.

The combined function of the HALO and Orion life support systems will sustain up to four astronauts for up to 30 days on the Gateway, officials said.

“By leveraging the active Cygnus production line, Northrop Grumman has the unique capability of providing an affordable and reliable HALO module in the timeframe needed to support NASA’s Artemis program,” Northrop Grumman said.

“The success of our Cygnus spacecraft and its active production line helps to enable Northrop Grumman to deliver the HALO module,” said Steve Krein, vice president for civil and commercial satellites at Northrop Grumman. “HALO is an essential element in NASA’s long-term exploration of deep-space, and our HALO program team will continue its work in building and delivering this module in partnership with NASA.”

The docking ports on the HALO module will accommodate Orion crew capsules, lunar landers and cargo ships.

The Gateway’s unpressurized Power and Propulsion Element will serve as the service module for the mini-space station, providing electrical power generated by huge roll-out solar arrays and propulsion capability from high-power solar-electric thrusters made by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

NASA has signed a contract with SpaceX to provide logistics services to the Gateway using an extended version of the Dragon spacecraft launched aboard Falcon Heavy rockets. The Dragon XL will carry up experiments, food, supplies, spacesuits and other equipment to support astronauts on the Gateway.

In April, NASA announced agreements with Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX to advance the design of crew-rated lunar lander concepts for the Artemis program.

NASA discusses new details about tandem launch of first two Gateway elements

Ken Bowersox, the acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight division, said Tuesday that the agency’s plan to launch the PPE and HALO elements on the same heavy-lift rocket will require the Gateway’s solar-powered thrusters to do more of the work to position the lunar outpost into its planned orbit around the moon.

NASA has not selected a rocket to carry the two modules into space, but the massive payload could fit on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with a lengthened payload fairing currently in development to accommodate large U.S. military satellites, officials said. A final selection of a launch vehicle for the Gateway modules is expected before the end of this year.

Agency managers previously intended to launch the PPE module and the HALO on separate rockets in 2022 and 2023. Now the combined elements are scheduled for launch in November 2023, according to Dan Hartman, NASA’s Gateway program manager.

The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element and HALO habitation module will now launch together inside an extended payload fairing. Credit: NASA

The tandem launch will allow engineers to connect the modules together on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center, rather than having to perform an automated docking in the vicinity of the moon. The connections involve structural, mechanical, power and fluids interfaces.

Northrop Grumman will handle the connections between the HALO and the Maxar-built Power and Propulsion Element.

That will save money and reduce risk, according to NASA.

Rather than launching directly on a trajectory toward the moon, the first two Gateway modules will deploy off their launch vehicle in a high-altitude orbit around Earth, then head to an elliptical halo orbit around the moon.

“When we decided to integrate the PPE and the HALO, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to get the elements all the way out to the moon with the launch vehicle,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “What would work better was to get them into a high orbit and then use the solar-electric propulsion to get out to cislunar space, so that’s our plan now.”

NASA says the Gateway will have several missions, including demonstrating technologies for future deep space missions, such as human expeditions to Mars. Many engineers consider high-power solar-electric propulsion, which uses electricity and an inert gas to produce thrust, as an essential technology for long-duration flights to Mars.

“The great part about that plan is we’re going to get lots of run time on those solar-electric engines, and we’re going to get the run time very early in the vehicle’s life,” Bowersox said. “So Gateway will already have served a big part of its purpose within its first year of life, and then we’ll be able to add additional (xenon) fuel to the gateway, get more information on how long those engines last in addition to supporting the work on the lunar surface.”

The Gateway will also act as a safe haven for astronauts heading to the lunar surface, and it will offer a staging point for lunar landers, allowing the vehicles to eventually be refueled and reused for multiple trips to and from the moon.

But NASA has deferred some work on the Gateway in favor of accelerating development of crewed lunar landing vehicles. While the Gateway could provide communications relay support for the Artemis program’s first lunar landing mission with astronauts, crews are not expected to visit the Gateway until at least 2025.

NASA has often emphasized the Gateway’s ability to host scientific payloads for solar and astronomical research, alongside biological and radiation experiments, and lunar research instruments. But much of those capabilities will come later, once international elements are added to the Gateway.

Canada is developing a new robotic arm for the Gateway station, and Japanese and European space agencies are working on larger habitation module and a refueling and communications package for the outpost in lunar orbit.

“We want to use Gateway for as much science as we can, but as we descope Gateway, we’re going to have just less surface area on the outside, less surface area on the inside, so we’re not going to have as much room for different science investigations,” Bowersox said Tuesday. “But we want to get as much out of it as we can.”

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