December 10, 2012
Credit: Credit: SpaceX
Amy Butler Washington
After six years of the United Launch Alliance holding a monopoly for large U.S. government satellite launches, its primary customer, the U.S. Air Force, has begun issuing contracts that will foster competition in this market.
Launch market upstart Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) won the first two competitions out for bid under the Air Force's new Orbital/Suborbital Program-3 (OSP-3) contract last week. These are the first Air Force-funded opportunities for would-be competitors to ULA to earn government money to prove out their young designs and march forward on the path to certification for launches in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) class, which is used for the most valuable Pentagon and intelligence satellites.
SpaceX will use its Falcon 9 v1.1 to boost NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory (Dscovr) satellite and the Falcon Heavy for the Space Test Program (STP-2) satellite. The Dscovr launch is slated for November 2014 with STP-2 to follow in September 2015, says Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Air Force program executive officer for space programs. This is the first government order for the yet-to-be proven Falcon Heavy.
SpaceX bested Orbital Sciences Corp., which pitched its new Antares rocket for these missions. The two are the only companies approved to compete to launch larger satellites under the Air Force's new OSP-3 contract vehicle. OSP-3 will include 10-12 launches through 2017 at a cost ceiling of $900 million. Also under OSP-3, the Air Force selected Orbital, with its Minotaur family, and Lockheed Martin, offering the new Athena, as eligible competitors for launches of smaller satellites, Pawlikowski says.
The Air Force has already set aside about $100 million for the Dscovr launch and another $162 million is expected for the STP-2 mission, Pawlikowski says, adding that SpaceX's proposals were “considered best value to the government.” Though this will be the first government-sponsored Falcon Heavy mission, SpaceX is funding a demonstration flight of the booster from Vandenberg AFB, Calif., in the second half of next year. Intelsat is the first customer, with a launch slated in 2015.
No funding has been set aside yet for smaller launch missions under OSP-3, which follows the OSP-1 and -2 contracts served by Orbital's Minotaur family; OSP-2 expired this year. That prompted officials to issue a call for bids for this recent program and provided an opportunity to invite proposals for improved lift and performance offered by companies hoping to compete for EELV-class missions.
SpaceX's wins place the company on a good competitive footing, but it will have to perform. Last year, the Air Force laid out criteria for launch market “new entrants” to be certified to fly Air Force payloads, such as GPS satellites. Both SpaceX and Orbital submitted letters of intent to certify their rockets for eligibility to compete against ULA for future launches.