Air Force limits future launch bidding to SpaceX and ULA


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The Air Force today announced that it decided, after more than a year of discussions and negotiations, to limit bidding on all launch contracts for the next five years to only SpaceX and ULA, thus restricting competitive bidding on those contracts.

The awards represent the second phase of the military’s National Security Space Launch program, which is organized by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California. Four companies — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ULA, Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — bid for the contracts, with the military set to spend about $1 billion per year on launches.

The NSSL awards represent nearly three dozen launches, scheduled between 2022 and 2026. ULA won 60% of the launches, and SpaceX won the remaining 40%.

The award blocks Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin from bidding on these contracts. Expect a lawsuit from these two companies demanding that they have the right to bid, just as SpaceX did several years ago when the Air Force tried to maintain ULA’s monopoly on bidding.

On a very common sense level, this approach by the Air Force (its space operations soon to be taken over by the Space Force) makes little sense. Why restrict bidding? Both Blue Origin or Northrop Grumman expect to have their new rockets operating commercially in the next two years. They should have the right to bid on military launches. The competition will strengthen the launch market, reduce the costs to the military, and give it more redundancy and flexibility.

Based on my research, the only real reason I have ever been able to find for the Air Force’s desire to do this is their inability to deal with their paperwork should more than two bids be received.

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12 comments

  • Ray

    Robert, I totally agree with your comment about paperwork. I worked in the Department of Energy and the procurement process was a bureaucratic monster. The person making the final decision is a non technical career government worker rather than engineers or scientists. The fear of making a “bad” decision is so deep that in most cases decisions are not made until you only have one choice or only current vendors are chosen so bad performance can be blamed on a previous party’s decision . If I worked for the Feds for more than a couple year I fear I would have lost my soul. Fortunately I could retire before going crazy.

  • David

    To be fair, the people in the air force making these decisions are bound by the process they have, as horrible as it is, and the higher level people that could theoretically try and streamline those processes have long since learned that even acting like they might want to do that would be a quick and painful way to end both their career and any hope of lucrative employment afterwards. Absent a serious bi-partisan push to clean this stuff up, from both the executive and legislative branches, and not just the big names but their staff, it’s just going to get worse, not better.

  • pzatchok

    I could see a process for qualifying the rockets before allowing them to bid.

    Something like three orbital insertions before being allowed to bid.

  • LocalFluff

    When you sit on the can, and the launch is constantly delayed. Nothing drops, no parachutes. That’s a horrible decease. That’s NASA.

  • sippin_bourbon

    The “minimum #number of launches” to be allowed to bid seems like a reasonable requirement to me.

  • mkent

    The Air Force today announced that it decided, after more than a year of discussions and negotiations, to limit bidding on all launch contracts for the next five years to only SpaceX and ULA, thus restricting competitive bidding on those contracts.

    No, this was not “discussions and negotiations”, this *WAS* the competitive bid. A formal RFP was released, formal bids were received, the bids were evaluated, and the winners were just announced.

    The award blocks Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin from bidding on these contracts.

    No, they just bid on these contracts. They lost. Just because one of your preferred suppliers loses a competition doesn’t mean the competition didn’t happen.

    Expect a lawsuit from these two companies demanding that they have the right to bid, just as SpaceX did several years ago when the Air Force tried to maintain ULA’s monopoly on bidding.

    Perhaps. Anyone can sue anyone for any reason. But I expect those suits will go nowhere, just like SpaceX’s suits did.

    Based on my research, the only real reason I have ever been able to find for the Air Force’s desire to do this is their inability to deal with their paperwork should more than two bids be received.

    Four bids were received in August 2019 for this contract.

    I think you misunderstand what just happened here. Read up on it. The Pentagon just did what you want them to do. It’s just that, apparently, one of your preferred suppliers lost.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Moment. You have a source for the statement that four bids were received?

    Or is this insider info?

  • sippin_bourbon

    mkent that last question was for you. Autocorrect changed the name.

    Just looking for a source/more info.

  • mkent

    You have a source for the statement that four bids were received?

    It’s right there in the article as quoted by our host:

    Four companies — Elon Musk’s SpaceX, ULA, Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin — bid for the contracts…

  • LocalFluff

    Just like ULA once was formed, now ULA and SpaceX should make a deal to fix the launch price for the Air Force (or is it the Space Force now?) at $10 billion a flight. They have decided that price is irrelevant and that the only purpose of the military is to create monopolies, so let’em eat it!

  • Edward

    mkent is largely correct. The bidding is over and the contracts awarded. From the article:

    The NSSL awards represent nearly three dozen launches, scheduled between 2022 and 2026. ULA won 60% of the launches, and SpaceX won the remaining 40%.

    However, my recollection is that SpaceX’s lawsuit ended in SpaceX getting a few Air Force launches. SpaceX had an operational launcher, at the time of their lawsuit, but the Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin launchers are still in development. I don’t know how that would affect a court decision.

    pzatchok wrote: “I could see a process for qualifying the rockets before allowing them to bid. Something like three orbital insertions before being allowed to bid.

    As I recall, Falcon 9 had to fly successfully seven times before it could launch its first Air Force payload, not before it could bid. Even then, it was limited mostly to satellites with backups (e.g. GPS or X-37) as its first Air Force payloads. Could either Northrop Grumman or Blue Origin launch their new launch vehicles enough to qualify for a launch in or before 2026?

  • Jeff Wright

    Now, I would like to see Omega fly, but perhaps as Athena III with silo launch, ICBM style. Keeping a large launch vehicle on stand by in the way ICBMs are kept at the ready is a must for transient events like potential asteroids.

    The LV is kept at the ready with swappable upper stages/payloads…science craft impactors for clean miss—nukes for real threats.

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