12 February 2020
This is going to be a milestone year for US military space. Since 1994, the Air Force has relied on the EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program to launch its satellites. The central feature of EELV has been to ensure regular, flexible access to space by having two available launch vehicle programs from which to choose. It’s a kind of insurance plan in case one vehicle fails and it is unable to launch again soon.
For the past 25 years, EELV launches have been provided mostly by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V and Delta IV rocket families. During the past five years, SpaceX has won contracts to launch six EELV payloads aboard its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. ULA’s EELV monopoly was broken in 2015 with the Air Force’s certification of the Falcon 9 to launch EELV payloads.
In March 2019, the Air Force changed the name of the EELV program to NSSL (National Security Space Launch). NSSL is aimed at leveraging new players and technologies (reusable) within the US commercial launch industry. The Air Force is expected to decide on the first major procurement of NSSL launch services this summer.
Four companies are competing for the NSSL’s Launch Service Procurement (LSP) contract, including SpaceX with its Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy, ULA with its Vulcan, Blue Origin with its New Glenn, and Northrop Grumman with its OmegA. Three of these four rockets are new programs. Maiden launches for OmegA, New Glenn and Vulcan are scheduled in 2021.
The Air Force will select only two companies in the LSP competition. The winners would split up some 30 launches proposed for launch during 2022-2026—an average of six launches annually. Ie expect one of the winners will be SpaceX, given that its Falcons are the only rockets with a proven track record and have consistently offered the lowest launch prices.
It is worth noting, though, that a recent independent study of the launch market by RAND suggests that the Air Force may want to consider expanding its NSSL launch providers to three, given that three of the four competing launch vehicles are still under development and, thus, face some uncertainty. If the Air Force opts to go with three NSSL providers, then my bet would be ULA and Blue Origin, along with SpaceX. After all, how do you turn away your legacy provider (ULA). And how do you say no to Bezos and all that cash he’s lovingly investing in New Glenn.