Space Force Plans to ‘Guarantee’ Future Launch Missions With 3 Providers Faces Near Term Challenge

While Space Systems Command hasn’t publicly expressed concerns, outside observers point out that there is a real possibility that only Elon Musk’s SpaceX will be able to undertake National Security Space Launches in the next few years.

Amid growing concerns about the potential for Elon Musk’s SpaceX to virtually monopolize the US government space launch market in the near- to medium-term, the Space Force has drafted a new plan to expand the number of heavy-lift rocket providers for its future must-have satellites to three — as opposed to its earlier draft plan issued in February that called for only two.

The issue, sources say, is that there may not be any competitor actually able to provide a second option for the initial timeframe sought by the Space Force, let alone a third.

The expanded plan, floated in a July 14 draft request for proposals from industry regarding Phase 3 of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program was described by a Space Force official as a way for the government to “guarantee” that critical satellites can get into space when needed — especially those destined for more difficult to reach geosynchronous orbits (GEO).

“We looked at the market, we looked at the capacity,” Col. Douglas Pentecost, deputy head of Space Systems Command’s (SCC) Assured Access to Space directorate, told reporters on July 14. “We made the determination that in order to really ensure access to space, that adding a third provider into what we’re calling Lane 2 is what was good for the nation.

“We just wanted to protect ourselves … over this next five years,” he said.

Both SSC’s February draft request and the new one include proposed requirements for providers hoping to win Lane 2 contracts for launches of high-priority space missions to higher and/or more precise orbits that require a heavy-lift rocket, as well as a new acquisition path, called “Lane 1,” to allow the bevy of emerging small launch companies to compete for Space Force launches to lower orbits.

“Lane 2 is for those more critical payloads — the bigger ones, the ones that we want to go direct inject to GEO so that we save the fuel on the satellite so that we can maneuver in space,” Pentecost said. “And so you can imagine that that type of capability is unique to what the military needs.”

But the question is whether there actually will be three competitors ready to blast off in time under Lane 2 — at least for the start of NSSL Phase 3, since the first contracts need to be awarded in fiscal year 2025 for launch in 2027. NSSL Phase 3 will cover launches between 2027 and 2032.

Currently, only two firms are certified by the Space Force to lift national security payloads into orbit under the NSSL program, SpaceX and the Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture ULA, or United Launch Alliance — SpaceX with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, ULA with the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy.

ULA and SpaceX nabbed the ongoing NSSL Phase 2 awards in 2020, under an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity award covering all Space Force and NRO launches between 2022 and 2027. ULA was awarded a 60 percent share of all the launches, and SpaceX 40 percent.

However, both of ULA’s rockets are being phased out by the end of this year, and their promised successor, the Vulcan Centaur, is years behind schedule to complete even the first of the two launches required to be certified for NSSL launches. (Pentecost said that the Space Forces now expects the first of the qualifying launches to lift off in December.) That makes very real the chance that SpaceX may be the only certified provider for military space launch as soon as early 2024 — the exact kind of risky, one-option-only monopoly that SpaceX successfully argued ULA of being in the mid-2010s.

Of Musk And Monopolies

SpaceX on Jan. 15 [PDF] launched its first NSSL mission to geosynchronous orbit (GEO, some 36,000 kilometers above the Earth) using its Falcon Heavy booster, then on Jan. 18 [PDF] launched a separately contracted GPS III satellite to medium Earth orbit on a smaller Falcon 9. It also launched the Space Development Agency’s first set of test satellites for high-volume data relay and missile warning/tracking on April 2 using a Falcon 9.

The company further this spring began orbital testing — although so far without success — on its Starship super-heavy lift launch vehicle that Musk has been designing to carry humans to Mars. The Space Force already is eyeing Starship to potentially launch cargo through space. NASA also in 2021 chose the company’s Starship Human Lander spacecraft (a variant of Musk’s planned Mars lander) for its first mission to put astronauts on the Moon under the Artemis program.

The other potential competitor for NSSL Phase 3, the New Glenn rocket under development by Blue Origin, is owned by Amazon billionaire and Musk rival Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin supporters in Congress long have pushed for an NSSL on-ramp for New Glenn, so far the rocket has yet to fly. Under its first NASA launch contract awarded in February, Blue Origin is supposed to send New Glenn to Martian orbit by late 2024.

“In terms of the potential for three competitors in the U.S. medium/heavy launch market, that is entirely possible but still uncertain. The most likely competitors by 2027 would be SpaceX with its Starship vehicle fully operational, Blue Origin with New Glenn, and ULA with Vulcan. But progress on Vulcan has been slow, and we don’t know much about the status of New Glenn,” Todd Harrison, a space expert who is now managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights, told Breaking Defense in an email.

Nonetheless, Harrison opined, “I think it is smart to allow more than two competitors, because it sends a strong signal to the market and makes it more likely that three (or more) competitors will materialize.”

Already, the market predominance of SpaceX has led to a number of current and former government officials to begin raising questions about the possibility of a near monopoly by the company on US space launch in the short- to medium- term — thus subjecting the Defense Department and NASA to the whims of the firm’s notoriously mercurial owner Elon Musk.

SpaceX currently is the leader in global launch to low Earth orbit (LEO) — “accounting for 60 [percent] of the effective launch capacity (metric tons to LEO) of the global market in 2022,” Harrison said, adding that the company now is poised to possibly do the same in the heavy launch market with Starship rocket.

“Starship will fundamentally change everything because of its size and the launch rate SpaceX is projecting. We could see SpaceX’s annual effective launch capacity triple from what it is today within the next five years,” Harrison said.

“The only thing worse than a government monopoly is a private monopoly that government is dependent on,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told a conference sponsored by The Aerospace Corporation and George Washington University on June 29. While Bridenstine was talking about NASA’s current reliance on SpaceX, a number of current and former Pentagon officials and outside experts have similar concerns regarding the Space Force.

Responding to questions at the annual Aspen Security Forum about DoD’s commercial space dependence, Gen. James Dickinson, the head of US Space Command, said that the key if for the military to maintain a “balance” of commercial versus military acquisitions for all types of space missions.

“We’re not going to be all commercial. We may not be all military, but as we look at our missionaries within US Space Command and the Department of Defense, there is a balance between what is purely military and what might be relied upon as a service, for example from the commercial sector.”

SSC’s Goal: Secure Access To Space

All that said, SSC officials haven’t publicly expressed concerns about potentially being beholden to Musk for future national security satellite launches.

The addition of a third provider, Pentacost said, was prompted by a determination by SSC that more Lane 2 launches will be needed than it had originally estimated. Further, he explained, there is a growing market for commercial launch that could erode the Space Force’s future access if it fails to plan accordingly.

Under the new draft plan, Pentecost said, SSC intends 58 Lane 2 launches during that time frame rather than the 38 estimated in the February draft. Another 30 are planned for Lane 1. SSC intends to release a final request for bids in September and award the three Lane 2 contracts in October 2024, along with the first individual mission contracts under Lane 2.

For Lane 2, where the big money will be, two competitors will be chosen to undertake 51 of the planned launches: the winner will be awarded 60 percent and the second will take 40 percent. The remaining seven launches, which will include five GPS satellite launches to medium Earth orbit and two direct-to-GEO orbit, Pentecost said, will be contract to the third place provider. Each contract will cover five years.

SSC did not provide a top line budget for the draft plan, but as with previous NSSL manifests Phase 3 is expected to involve billions of dollars.