Heavy Lift Rocket Competition Coming to Conclusion (Updated)
The Air Force is preparing to make a long-awaited decision on which two companies will be heavy lift providers for the next phase of its National Security Space Launch program and which two will be left out.
The competition pits some of the biggest names in defense contracting against so-called “new space” companies: Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Officials said the downselect will be made this summer.
The competition began in earnest in October 2018 when the Air Force awarded Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture United Launch Alliance (ULA) a total of $2.3 billion in funding to develop the next generation of rockets capable of lofting military and National Reconnaissance Office spacecraft.
SpaceX is very much part of the competition but already had a certified Falcon rocket capable of delivering national security payloads when the development contracts were awarded.
Phase 2 of the competition kicked off in May 2019 with a request for proposals and SpaceX joining the fray. That will lead to a decision to whittle the competition down to two companies that will continue to receive funding and serve as the main launch providers for the military and NRO through fiscal year 2027.
The effort, which falls under the Air Force but is transitioning to the Space Force, is part of the goal to move the United States away from its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is used on Atlas V rockets. Congress mandated that the government cease using the Russian-made RD-180 after 2022.
“These providers will bring the next generation of launch vehicles to [the Space and Missile Systems Center] launch enterprise, delivering additional capabilities benefiting our warfighters and nation while effectively ending the nation’s reliance on Russian propulsion systems,” said Col. Rob Bongiovi, director of SMC’s launch enterprise. “The Phase 2 contracts will spawn a new era of partnership with commercial providers, enabling competitive, flexible launch services.”
Despite COVID-19 impacts on the defense industrial base, the Pentagon still plans to award the contracts on time and the pandemic does not appear to have affected the competitors, Bongiovi said in an email. Phase 2 proposals were submitted in February prior to the issuance of stay-at-home orders across the nation, he said.
The pandemic’s “resulting economic downturn created unprecedented uncertainty about the potential impacts on the entire aerospace industry,” he said. “Despite this national crisis, the Space and Missile Systems Center is committed to assuring access to space for our vital national security space assets.”
In April, the RAND Corp. released a report titled, “Assessing the Impact of U.S. Air Force National Security Space Launch Acquisition Decisions.” The authors noted that the space launch market is likely to see only moderate growth over the next 10 years, and the U.S. share of this market is likely to fall.
The Defense Department would benefit from supporting three launch providers rather than choosing only two, according to the study, which was commissioned by the Air Force.
However, “the launch market is unlikely to support more than one U.S. supplier of launch services focused on commercial heavy lift,” it said.
The authors noted that annual worldwide launches grew from 47 in 1998 to 71 in 2018; but commercial launches requiring more powerful rockets remained at around 20 per year. SpaceX services more than half of those launches. Foreign launch providers also provide competition and the U.S. share is expected to diminish, the study said.
The report also noted that providing support to three companies through 2023 would help ward off unwanted foreign competition as a near-term strategy.
“The department agrees with RAND that providing tailored support to a third launch service provider in the near-term may discourage foreign competitors from entering the market, and that tailored support does not necessarily mean awarding three Phase 2 launch service procurement contracts,” Bongiovi said. “However, RAND also warned that the commercial market may not be able to support two U.S. launch providers in the long-term. The department will continue to monitor the commercial market as it develops the best acquisition strategy to support Phase 3 requirements.”
Stephen McCall, a military space analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said the two losers in the competition will find themselves cut off from federal funding and may choose to abandon the government market. They will have to vie with the others for the relatively small number of commercial launch contracts, he said in a CRS report published in May titled, “Defense Primer: National Security Space Launch.”
“DoD investment in only two launch providers could mean fewer options for an increasing diverse range of national security space mission demands and possibly limit competition in the launch market once again,” he said, harkening back a decade ago when ULA was the only U.S.-based launch provider capable of lifting heavy payloads.
Meanwhile, development continues for three of the four competitors.
Megan Mitchell, director of government and legislative affairs for Blue Origin, said the company is bidding New Glenn — a heavy-lift rocket with a reusable first stage — with a BE-4 engine.
The United Launch Alliance is also using the BE-4 for its bid, meaning Blue Origin may not be left entirely out in the cold if ULA should be named a winner, and Bezos’ entry fails. The company has invested about $2.5 billion into the rocket’s development and associated facilities.
“New Glenn is a single configuration launch vehicle, which means it can accommodate multiple mission payloads and be flown the same way each time,” Mitchell said in a statement. “Reusable rockets, like New Glenn, are completely changing the economics of spaceflight.”
The BE-4 engine is the first oxygen-rich staged combustion engine made in the United States, she noted.
“The BE-4 engine will power two different next-generation American launch vehicles — New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan — supporting our transition from Russian to U.S.-made engines and the Air Force’s long-term national security mission in space,” she said.
Last year, Blue Origin launched a protest through the Government Accountability Office against the Air Force, arguing that the previous solicitation did not allow for open competition and was ambiguous. The GAO ruled that part of the selection criteria in the solicitation was inconsistent with procurement laws, and the Air Force amended the RFP in response.
Northrop is offering a three-stage rocket dubbed OmegA, said Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems for the company’s launch and missile defense systems division. The company conducted a static test in February and plans to hold its first certification flight in 2021.
The rocket has “a fairly large payload compartment on top in the staging, meaning the propulsion at liftoff burns out before it gets all the way to orbit,” he explained.
Northrop’s plan is to leverage assembly lines that are already doing work for other programs, which will lead to cost savings, he noted.
“In this case, the customer for OmegA is not paying for all that infrastructure,” Precourt said. “It’s shared with a whole bunch of other programs. … When OmegA came online, it picked up its share of those overheads and the other programs now see a reduction.”
United Launch Alliance is bidding the Vulcan Centaur rocket, said Tory Bruno, the company’s CEO. Bruno touted the BE-4 engine as one of the key elements of the organization’s bid. “That’s coming along well.”
In July, the company announced that Blue Origin had delivered the first BE-4 engine to ULA’s Decatur, Alabama, factory.
Integrating the new engine will be the next challenge. “We knew this would be pretty complicated. It may have a baseline schedule, but ... they might very well need more time,” he said. “We built a lot of time into the schedule to allow them to get through all of that with a lot of confidence.”
The company has worked through problems that delayed the rocket’s first flight, which was originally scheduled for this year. The system is now slated to fly in 2021.
“Last summer they really crossed past a lot of technical hurdles,” Bruno said. “This is probably the largest methane rocket engine by at least a factor of 1,000 and has been successfully developed and gotten to work.”
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. However, it already has a rocket certified for government heavy launches: the Falcon 9. With ULA retiring the Delta IV rocket, and the 2022 deadline to cease using the RD-180 on the Atlas V looming, SpaceX could potentially be the only affordable option for heavy lift missions for a number of years.
On June 30, SpaceX launched a GPS III satellite under an Air Force contract to geosynchronous orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket. Its reusable first stage was able to land on a drone ship downrange, a first for a national security launch mission. Falcon 9 with great fanfare also sent two astronauts to the International Space Station earlier in the summer, marking the first human space flight launched from U.S. soil in a decade, also while returning the first stage to Earth in order to be used again.
CRS’ McCall said Congress may consider ordering the Space Force to study the potential cost savings — along with the potential risks — of using reusable launch systems such as the Falcon 9. Blue Origin has also demonstrated reusability.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is beginning to assess how it will handle launches beyond fiscal year 2028, which is part of Phase 3 of the program, said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.
Procurement contracts for Phase 3 are slated for 2025.
“We hope to have that architecture study inform us about what those requirements in Phase 3 could look like,” he said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies webinar in June. “If there is an opportunity to start developing against some of those requirements earlier in the process during the execution of Phase 2, then I think we’re very amenable to that.”
Thompson said he is confident in industry’s ability to meet the Air Force’s requirements.
“What I’m seeing right now across the launch industrial base is a lot of good, particularly in the national security space launch-sized vehicles,” he said. “Our vendors … continue to make progress maturing their vehicles, and I’m confident that they’re going to get them across the finish line.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., pushed to provide additional funding for the effort in his mark for the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. According to the document, Smith hopes to boost the program’s funding by $150 million in preparation for the next phase.
If authorized, the money would help begin “full and open competition for investments in preparation for Phase 3 competition after fiscal year 2024, including certification and infrastructure necessary for Phase 3 and transformational technologies that support Phase 3,” the document said.
The 2020 defense budget included $432 million in research, development, test and evaluation funding and $1.2 billion in procurement funding for the program.
One option for Congress is to continue to provide research-and-development funding to the competition’s losers in order for the Space Force to “diversify its launch provider options,” McCall said.
He warned that the program still faces technical risks and has a long way to go before it can duplicate the success of the RD-180.
“Even with a smooth, on-schedule transition away from the RD-180 to an alternative engine or launch vehicle, the performance and reliability record achieved with the RD-180 to date would likely not be replicated until well beyond 2030; the RD-180 has approximately 81 consecutive successful civil, commercial and NSS launches since 2000,” he noted. NDClarification: A previous version of this story contained a definition of heavy lift that was too vague. The weight of the payloads the vehicles are capable of lofting depends on whether they are going to low-, medium or geostationary orbit. Other updates were made to provide additional clarity.