Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has won the first two U.S. Air Force contracts aimed at fostering competition in the U.S. launch market over a new design proposed by Orbital Sciences.
SpaceX will use its Falcon 9 v1.1 to boost NASA’s Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) in November 2014 and the Falcon 9 Heavy for launch of a Space Test Program satellite in September 2015, says Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, program executive officer for Air Force space programs.
Already, about $100 million has been obligated under a new Orbital/Suborbital Program (OSP)-3 contract for the missions. Another $162 million is expected to be set aside in the coming days, Pawlikowski says. SpaceX “was considered the best value to the government,” she tells Aviation Week.
SpaceX’s Falcon rockets and the Antares, a new design by Orbital Sciences, have both been selected as competitors for what Pawlikoski calls “lane 2” launches under the OSP-3 contract. This means the two companies can compete for the larger satellite boosting missions to come under the contract umbrella.
SpaceX has launch experience with its Falcon 9 rocket, though the new, more powerful and considerably larger v1.1 is still in development and is not expected to fly before spring 2013. In the meantime, the Falcon 9 heavy, which will be powered by the new Merlin 1D engine being developed for the v1.1, is unlikely to debut before 2014.
Orbital plans for its first Antares launch in the first quarter of next year in support of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, says Barron Beneski, a company spokesman.
Orbital Sciences, with its Minotaur family, and Lockheed Martin, with the new Athena booster, were selected as competitors for “lane 1” competitions; these involve lofting smaller satellites into orbit. These launches are akin to those provided by Minotaur under the previous OSP-1 and 2 contract umbrellas; OSP-2 expired this year, prompting a call for bids for OSP-3. No lane 1 missions have been competed yet.
In total, the Air Force issued an indefinite-quantity/indefinite-delivery contract for 10-12 launches under the OSP-3 contract worth up to $900 million.
SpaceX’s wins are notable because these launches — combined with their commercial and NASA missions — will provide data needed by the Air Force to eventually certify the company to compete for work in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. United Launch Alliance, with its Atlas V and Delta IV rocket families, has held a monopoly in this market since 2006, when the company grew out of a government-endorsed merger of Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s launch businesses. Some government officials have said the price of EELVs has crept too high, prompting renewed interest in generating competition in the market.
Pawlikowski says the mission assurance requirements associated with the DSCOVR and STP-2 launches will provide the service much-needed insight to support the company’s hopes of qualifying to compete against ULA.
Government officials say the earliest SpaceX may compete in this market is likely in 2015.