The Air Force will soon accept offers for launches in mid-2020. It's controversial

The United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy lifts the NROL-71 payload on January 19, 2019.
Enlarge / The United Launch Alliance's Delta IV Heavy lifts the NROL-71 payload on January 19, 2019.

United Launch Alliance

Over the next 10 days, the US Air Force could give rocket companies an opportunity to bid for about 25 launches between 2022 and 2026. Although a "Request for Proposal" does not appear so provocative, this government solicitation is met with intrigue – and will have major implications for all major US rocket companies.

At present, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX are launching rockets for the air force, installing powerful spy cameras, communications satellites and other payloads. sensitive on various government orbits. In recent years, the military has sought to modernize its contractor base over the next decade, encouraging new competitors and new ideas. This upcoming solicitation of launch contracts in the mid-2020s may, however, put an end to this effort.

Just five months ago, in October, the Air Force announced a $ 2.25 billion "launch services agreement" to be split between ULA (Vulcan rocket), Northrop Grumman (Omega) and Blue Origin (New Glenn). Funds were made available for each of these companies to develop large, modern rockets and build the launching facilities needed to support military payloads. In the first year of these awards, each company will receive $ 181 million in individual rewards. (SpaceX, somewhat controversial, has not received a reward.This is partly because the air force thinks the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets can meet his needs.)

For reasons that are not entirely clear, these development grants arrived about a year later than planned. This is of importance because only two months later, in December, the Air Force published a draft request for proposals providing for launches between 2022 and 2026. This document, updated in February, specifies the information that the government wants from each company, including the capacity of its rockets and other data needed to determine if each launcher can meet the needs of the Air Force. A final RFP could be issued on March 29, with the Air Force making a final decision later this year.


Notably, as part of this competition, the Air Force will only choose two companies to meet its launching requirements from 2022 to 2026, a provider winning 60% of the contracts and l 39; another 40%. There is no provision for other companies during the reporting period.

This sets up a rather frenzied competition between the ULA and SpaceX historical operators, and newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). In addition, the timing seems to be hurting competition for incumbents, who already have existing launch systems and the government can evaluate.

ULA has a long and successful experience of national security missions for the Air Force. Although she is developing the Vulcan rocket, she will dispose in 2022 of relief options for the air force. So, if Vulcan is not ready, it could still meet the needs of the Air Force with its Atlas V rocket and Delta IV Heavy launcher, both of which should be in flight (the solicitation language allows this expressly). SpaceX has also been proven with its Falcon 9 rocket and the Falcon Heavy is expected to have at least half a dozen missions under its belt by 2022.

In comparison, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman are still developing components of their new rockets. They may or may not have done test flights in three years. The Air Force will make decisions this year between two well-established start-up companies and two potential incomplete equipment companies. "Everything the Air Force has done up to now favors the companies in place," said Ars an industry source familiar with this process.

There is another wrinkle in this decision too. As previously stated, ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman have received a portion of their launch service agreement premiums. However, for companies that do not cut for start-up contracts between 2022 and 2026, the rest of the development funding will be stopped.

The Air Force says that all companies will be eligible to bid for the next phase of launch contracts after 2026. Yet, to finalize the development of their rockets, companies will have to either self-finance , or probably give up their future competitions. "From this point of view, it's not really a five-year decision," the source said. "It's more like a 10- or 15-year decision."


In recent days, some of the non-incumbent rocket companies have begun to push back these conditions. A former Congressman who now advises Blue Origin, Barbara Comstock, is the author of an editorial published in Defense a which has raised some of these issues.

The Air Force's decision to select only two companies for launches from 2022 to 2026 would extend the "current market duopoly" for national security launches and eliminate incentives for ULA and SpaceX to compete on price, a- she supported. "This would undermine the efforts of competition in the military space that would drive down prices, galvanize technological advances, and help maintain American dominance in space," Comstock wrote.

In his Wednesday information letter, politico noted this editorial and quoted an unnamed source about Blue Origin's tactics. "No one is surprised they are doing it," the source said. "The New Glenn is so far behind, they know that they have no chance in phase two, so they try to change the rules." New Glenn is currently scheduled for its first launch in 2021.

So what will happen next? Air Force leaders are expected to meet on March 28, when they could issue the RFP the next day. There is also talk of a 12-month delay, which would have the effect of competing with the launches of 2022 between ULA and SpaceX, and then open the period from 2023 to 2026 to other competitors. This would give Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman more time to develop their rockets and prove some of their capabilities to the Air Force.

Air Force officials may also decide to maintain launch service agreements beyond this year for companies that will not win contracts from 2022 to 2026, which is included in the president's budget request for the first quarter of the year. 2020 exercise.

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