The U.S. Air Force has awarded the United Launch Alliance a billion-dollar contract for the completion of the second half of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) mission, stating that they are the only company capable of conducting classified space asset deployments.
Specifically, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center awarded the contract to ULA, which would total to $1.8 billion that would last for a duration of five years.
The award covers the launch operations costs for five Delta 4 Heavy classified NRO missions — NROL-44, NROL-82, NROL-91, NROL-68, and NROL-70, which will be used from 2020 to 2024.
The contract is for the United States Air Force’s program called the National Security Space Launch (NSSL), which is intended to assure access to space for the Department of Defense and other US government payloads.
Started in 1994 as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) launch system program, the initial program goal was to make government space launches more affordable and reliable, leading to the development of the Delta IV Heavy rockets.
The Air Force’s NSSL missions are of particular sensitivity because it oversees the launches of the nation’s most valuable and least risk-tolerant satellites for the military and the intelligence community.
The Air Force already had acquired five Delta 4 Heavy rockets for these missions under previous contracts 2017 and 2018.
The Air Force had procured Delta 4 Heavy rockets for NROL-44 and NROL-82 in the fiscal year 2017 under the EELV Phase 1 Block Buy contract that officially ended September 30, 2019.
Notably, the launch vehicle production contract for NROL-82 was awarded in April 2017 for $270.4 million and the launch vehicle for NROL-44 in December 2016 for $269.2 million. Three additional Delta 4 Heavy rockets were procured in October 2018 in a separate sole-source contract worth $467.5 million for NROL-91, NROL-68, and NROL-70.
However, both NROL-44 and NROL-88 missions ran behind schedule and slipped to 2020, which resulted in another contract bidding where the classified NRO missions became open for other competitors such as SpaceX.
Now, with the Air Force ultimately still choosing ULA for the space launches and deployments, the contract covers all remaining five missions and pays for infrastructure and launch pad maintenance and range support contractors at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, satellite encapsulation and propellants.
Altogether the contracts awarded for rocket production and launch services for the five missions add up to about $2.3 billion.
NROL-44 and NROL-82 are projected to launch in the fiscal year 2020. NROL-91, NROL-68, and NROL-70 are forecast to launch in fiscal years 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively.
Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise, told reporters September 30 that these are the “last remnants of sole-source contracts.”
Additionally, Bongiovi insisted that the Air Force is intended to move away from sole-sourcing and transition to a competitive launch procurement program. Future launches will compete under the NSSL Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement where two providers will be selected in 2020 to split 60/40 all national security missions from 2022 to 2026.
To win these contracts, companies have to demonstrate that they can meet the requirements for all national security missions projected for those five years.
As of the moment, the only other certified launch provider to challenge ULA in the EELV Phase 1 procurement was SpaceX. The Falcon 9 launch vehicle was certified in May 2015.
According to Air Force officials, a commercial space company needs to complete three missions to receive NSSL certification but they will still need to continue to pass other requirements to gain access to more difficult orbits that the Air Force requires specific space assets to be deployed.
Bongiovi said the NRO missions were sole-sourced to ULA because the Delta 4 was determined to be the only rocket that could satisfy the demands. “We are always trying to figure out how to introduce competition,” he said.
In response to questions on whether SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could have competed for these missions, Bongiovi said at the time these launches were acquired in 2016 and 2017, the Delta 4 Heavy was the only one able to do these missions. Even though Falcon Heavy has been certified for national security missions, it is still not able to meet “mission unique” requirements for very large NRO satellites that have to reach difficult orbits, he said.