A Falcon Heavy rocket launched the USSF-67 mission on January 15, 2023, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The U.S. military is widening — and widening — a high-profile competition for space force mission contracts.
The Space Force plans to buy more rocket launches from companies than previously expected in the coming years, giving more companies the chance to win potential multibillion-dollar contracts.
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“It’s a huge deal,” Col. Doug Pentecost, deputy program executive officer for the U.S. Space Force’s Space Systems Command, told reporters during a briefing this week.
Earlier this year, Space Force began the process of buying five years of launches, under a lucrative program known as National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3.
The U.S. is seeing a growing drive to improve its military capabilities in space, prompting the need to nearly triple the number of Phase 3 launches in 2020.
“It just blows my mind,” Pentecost said. “We estimated only 36 missions in Phase 2. For Phase 3, we are estimating 90 missions.”
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In February, Space Force outlined a “mutual fund” strategy to buy launches from companies. He divided NSSL Phase 3 into two groups. Lane 1 is a new approach, with lower requirements and a more flexible bidding process that allows companies to compete as rocket launches in the coming years. Lane 2 represents the current approach, with Space Force planning to select a fixed number of companies for missions that meet the most pressing requirements.
Pentecost said Space Force hosted an industry day in February to go over the details of the program, and 22 companies showed up. Since then, the Space Force has made a number of adjustments to Phase 3. It has added more missions, introduced price caps, expanded Lane 2, and established an annual schedule for mission assignments.
The government weighs bids based on a company’s “Total Evaluated Price” per launch. It is divided into “launch service,” which is what it costs to build and launch a rocket, and “launch service support,” which covers the military’s specific requirements for a launch. The amount of launch service support is limited to $100 million per year per company.
“We implemented some cost containment tools so we don’t balloon. We don’t want to [a situation where] Everybody gets a mission — you get a mission, you get a mission, you get a mission — because then there’s no real competition,” Pentecost said.
“We understand that all of our industry partners want to be the number one guy, so we think this will provide a competitive price to keep our costs down,” Pentecost added.
Wide lane 2
While Lane 1 is expected to have the highest bids and award 30 missions, Lane 2 is the big show.
With Lane 2, the Space Force awards the most valuable contracts to national security satellites.
“These are the $1 billion. [satellite] The payload is going into a unique orbit,” Pentecost said.
Not only has Lane 2 seen an increase in how many missions are being captured — there are currently an estimated 58 launches, up from 39 in February — but Space Force also decided to expand the slots available for final awards to three companies, instead of limiting them to two.
A joint venture between Elon Musk’s SpaceX and United Launch Alliance Boeing And Lockheed Martinwere considered the two leading contenders for Lane 2, but now a door is open for another company like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
The Space Force will assign 60% and 40% of the 51 missions to the top two bidders, respectively, and the remaining seven launches will go to the third-place bidder.
Regardless of where a company ranks, it must demonstrate that it can meet all of Lane 2’s requirements, including having launch sites on both the East Coast and West Coast, and the ability to hit nine “reference” orbits with high precision, many of which exceed Lane 1’s low-Earth orbit requirement.
Asked by CNBC how many companies are developing rockets that could meet those requirements by the launch deadline, a Space Force spokesman declined to say that the military is “tracking several” that are “increasing their launch capabilities to many of these orbits.”
“We’re hoping that it’s not just ULA, SpaceX and Blue Origin competing for it, as there are others who have expressed interest in the past,” Col. Chad Malone, chief of the Space Systems Command’s Launch Procurement and Integration Division, said during the briefing.
The space force is introducing an annual Oct. 1 deadline to assign missions to companies that have won contracts.
Pentecost explained that the first assignments are to be received in October 2025, but the contracts noted do not guarantee assignments, which would protect the Space Force from delays to companies in developing and flying rockets.
“You could have really won the contract, that you’ve got a very good plan for how you’re flying [fiscal year] 2027. But since you’re not flying yet, and I have a satellite that needs to fly in two years, we’re not going to give you that mission — we’re going to pass it on to another guy,” Pentecost said.
The Space Force aims to finalize its request for bidders by September and receive all proposals by December, then award the contract in October 2024.
Space Force officials said a big driver of the pressure is “guaranteeing capacity,” because there are “a ton of other companies” trying to buy launches for satellites and Space Force needs to close its orders.
“We wanted to make sure that we basically hedged against the lack of a launch that could happen because, if there’s a huge demand for a launch and everyone [buying]the prices can be very high,” Malone said.
But despite those fears, Pentecost said 2026 “looks like a pretty good place” when multiple companies’ rockets are in development and ready to fly. And companies that stay on track will have an upper hand in NSSL Phase 3.
“If you’re flying earlier, or if your schedule shows you’re going to fly earlier, you’re going to have significant strengths, which will put you in a better position to be the best provider or the runner-up in that competition.” Pentecost said.