Monday marked the deadline for four US rocket companies to submit air force bids covering all national security launches from 2022 to 2026. This is an extremely consistent and highly contested bidding process that has an impact on the US space industry for the next decade. and beyond.
The Air Force is looking for two suppliers for about two dozen launches. The main contractor will receive 60% of the starts, while the secondary contractor will require the remaining 40%. As the US military pays a premium for launching contracts for it nine reference orbits, this guaranteed revenue is extremely valuable to US companies seeking to run a profitable business.
The deadline for Monday includes heavy political lobbying by four companies: United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. As a result, Congress is considering some changes to its Air Force assignment policy, including a ramp to a third-party vendor from 2022 to 2026. But for now, the Air Force is resisting that.
Here's a look at the four candidates and what's at stake for each of them.
United Launch Alliance
The United Launch Alliance – a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which enjoyed a monopoly on launching national security before the advent of SpaceX – may be gaining a living. To get rid of Delta's expensive booster (as well as Russian rocket motors that go with its Atlas V work rocket), ULA is developing a Vulcan missile to cut costs while maintaining productivity. The company claims that the Vulcan will be ready for its first flight in 2021.
"Centaur Volcano will deliver higher performance and greater accessibility while still delivering unmatched reliability and orbital accuracy from our valuable cryogenic Centaur upper stage," ULA Chief Tory Bruno said in a news release Monday. "ULA is the best partner for launching space national security, and we are the only provider to demonstrate flying experience in all orbits, including the most challenging heavy-duty missions, providing the bottom line for the lowest risk of two US Air Force Launch Service Providers. "
With increasing competition from SpaceX, European Arianespace, Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Russian launch vehicles, ULA has failed to capture much of the commercial satellite launch market in the last decade. Therefore, it relied heavily on government business, especially the military. But ULA also relies on NASA for its scientific missions and lifting of cargo and crew missions to the International Space Station.
Unless the company emerges victorious from this competition, it faces an uncertain future unless Vulcan can become commercially viable. In addition, ULA will lose hundreds of millions of dollars of state money to finalize Vulcan if it does not receive a prize. Historically, Boeing and Lockheed were tough parents, and whether or not they would pay to finish Vulcan is unclear.
One intriguing twist on ULA's offer is that its Vulcan rocket will use the BE-4 rocket engine, which is being developed and manufactured by Blue Origin, one of four competitors in the BBC bidding process. Blue Origin said the BBC's competition was created to unfairly exploit ULA.
The Hawthorne, California-based missile company is the only candidate to use already-flying rockets – the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. This rocket family has a string of 49 successful launches following a static fire crash in September 2016 and according to SpaceX can meet all Air Force specifications and payloads.
"SpaceX means serving as a long-term provider of space launch missiles, offering existing, certified and proven launch systems capable of fulfilling the full range of national missions and space launch requirements for national security," said the company president and chief operations officer, Gwin Shotwell.
As the Air Force agreed to allow SpaceX into the National Security Launch Contest in 2015, the company won several key mission contracts and began flying them for the military. These include National Intelligence Office Launch 76, Orbital Test Vehicle 5, Global Positioning System III-2 and STP-2 flights.
SpaceX is also likely to offer the government the lowest cost of service in orbit. However, in its mission award criteria, the Air Force cited the price as one of its last considerations. Due to its lower price point, especially reusable for the Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has significant commercial business to make up for the loss of Air Force contracts. But it would hurt financially, anyway.
Jeff Bezos's rocket company has launched its very large New Glen rocket for the Air Force's missions. However, when this rocket starts flying is not completely clear, as there are questions as to whether it will be ready by the beginning of the 2022 contracting period.
Clearly, Blue Origin does not believe that the US Air Force has created a fair bidding process. The company has already filed a "reward" protest with the U.S. Government Accountability Office. "The Air Force is pursuing a wrong strategy to acquire a national security space launch program," Blue Origin told SpaceNews.
The Air Force's decision to outsource only two companies creates a "duopoly", says Blue Origin, and limits the commercial development of US strategic assets such as rocket motors and boosters. Bezos invests about $ 1 billion a year from his own money in Blue Origin, which is largely used to support the development of the BE-4 engine and the New Glenn rocket. He is likely to continue developing the New Glen missile without Air Force funding, but company officials say it is not fair to hold their wealthy founder against their offer.
Northrop has been developing the Omega rocket for this race since at least 2016. The Omega car is different from the rest of the race in that its first and second stages, as well as side-mounted amplifiers, are powered by solid rocket motors rather than liquid motors with fuel.
Northrop's pledge is that the US military, through its National Security Launch Treaty, would like to support one of the most critical suppliers of solid rocket propulsion engines in the country for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Northrop officials have not said whether they will continue to develop the Omega rocket if Northrop loses its Air Force contract.
Northrop's bid failed in May when an "anomaly" emerged during the test launch of its Castor 600 solid propellant rocket, the first stage of the Omega rocket. From a video provided by the company, much of the large rocket nozzle seems to be falling apart, blasting debris around the area.
Then Northrop Vice President Kent Rominger called the test a success. "Everything seems to have worked very, very well on this test," he said. "And at the very end, when the engine was shutting down, we were watching the cone exit from the back, maybe part of it, doing something a little weird that we should continue to look into."
Nevertheless, the test cannot inspire absolute confidence in the Air Force.