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The Air Force will soon take bids for mid-2020s launches. It’s controversial

Enlarge / A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy lifts the NROL-71 payload on Jan. 19, 2019. (credit: United Launch Alliance)

Within the next 10 days, the US Air Force may issue an opportunity for rocket companies to bid on contracts for about 25 launches between 2022 and 2026. Although a “request for proposals” may not sound all that provocative, this particular government solicitation is filled with intrigue—and will have major implications for all of the big US rocket companies.

At present, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX launch rockets for the Air Force, lofting powerful spy cameras, communication satellites and other sensitive payloads into various orbits for the government. In recent years, the military has sought to modernize its contractor base for the coming decade, encouraging new launch competitors and new ideas. This forthcoming solicitation for launch contracts in the mid-2020s, however, may effectively end that effort.

It was only five months ago, in October, that the Air Force announced $2.25 billion in “Launch Services Agreements” to be split among ULA (Vulcan rocket), Northrop Grumman (Omega), and Blue Origin (New Glenn). The funds were provided so that each of those companies could develop large, modern rockets and build the launch facilities needed to support military payloads. Over the first year of those awards, each company will receive the first $181 million of their individual awards. (SpaceX, somewhat controversially, did not receive an award. This is partly because the Air Force believes the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets can meet its needs.)

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