The U.S. Air Force has begun the process of conducting the first launch services competition since awarding the monopoly United Launch Alliance (ULA) an exclusive 36-core deal last year that sparked a lawsuit from upstart competitor .
The Air Force posted a draft request for proposals June 4 to loft the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-79 satellite next year.
Officials hope to get the work on contract this year, but that could be a thorny path as SpaceX cannot win national security launch work without certification. And its certification plan, which company President Gwynne Shotwell and launch program executive officer Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski both describe as ambitious, is slated to take all year.
On the flip side, this could be SpaceX’s first chance to win national security work since the Air Force’s issuance of the multi-billion-dollar December contract prompted the company to slap the service with a lawsuit claiming anticompetitive practices.
The contract with ULA locked in a buy of 36 cores from the company — covering 28 missions — in an attempt to stabilize rocket production and lower the Air Force’s cost to launch. But SpaceX claims it could have competed for some of these launches once it is certified.
SpaceX declined to say whether the company plans to bid for NROL-79.
ULA CEO Mike Gass said last month the Atlas V 401 (which is similar in capability to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1) costs about $164 million apiece under the 36-core deal. SpaceX says its price for the Falcon 9 v1.1 is about $100 million, including a premium for mission assurance required by the Air Force.
SpaceX has completed all three launches required for certification, but the Air Force still is assessing the company’s engineering and manufacturing data, a critical step needed to garner full certification of the company’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket.
ULA is likely to compete with the Atlas V, unless Congress adopts a proposal from the Senate Armed Services Committee that would bar the Pentagon from entering into any contract for space launch services if they rely on Russian suppliers; the Atlas V cannot fly without its Russian RD-180 first stage. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened last month to cut off supply of RD-180s after the White House slapped him and other Kremlin insiders with sanctions, but no official word has been transmitted about ceasing deliveries, and business continues as usual.
Still, "The committee finds this reliance on a Russian company for rocket engines to be inconsistent with the need for assured access to space [and it] reduces options available to respond to actions affecting the national security interests of the United States and our allies," the committee’s report on the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 authorization says. "This reliance is unnecessary given potential future competition in the area of space launch and the potential development of a new domestically produced rocket engine supported by the committee."
The committee leaves the door open for a waiver if the RD-180 is needed for national security, but stipulates that such a waiver must be used well in advance of contract negotiations.