The Air Force is also pressing ahead with plans to certify new entrants into the market. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) was the first to submit a statement of intent for certification, citing plans to certify the upgraded Falcon 9 rocket, which has yet to fly, within roughly two years.
Orbital, with its Antares, and Lockheed Martin, with the Athena, have subsequently submitted statements of intent for certification as well.
Once certified, the companies will not be guaranteed work; they will be able to compete for it. The near-term opportunity is for two missions: NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory, on the manifest for a fiscal year 2014 launch, and the Space Test Program 2 satellite being built by Ball Aerospace, slated to be lofted the following year.
An Air Force official says the government is assessing bids for these launches. ULA is barred from competing for this work as the Air Force earmarked it to help new entrants garner certification credentials.
However, the manifest still calls for 46 launches during fiscal years 2013-17. “If a potential new entrant becomes certified during this period, we believe [rocket] cores above those awarded to ULA will be available for competition,” the Air Force official says. “Right now, ULA is the only certified provider for mission-critical EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] launches.”
The service is open to new rocket- makers, but “certification requires demonstrating a high-confidence launch vehicle through a record of launch successes combined with government insight into the technical details of the launch vehicle.”