Five satellite Air Force contract up for bid

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Capitalism in space: The Air Force has announced that it will be soliciting bids from SpaceX and ULA for a 5-satellite launch contract.

Claire Leon, director of the Launch Enterprise Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, told reporters that grouping launches together was an effort to streamline and speed the acquisition process at a time when the national security sector is demanding ever-increasing access to space. “By doing five at once, it makes our acquisition more efficient and it allows the contractors to put in one proposal,” she said.

This grouping however might make it impossible for SpaceX to win the contract, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket might not be capable of launching all five satellites, and its Falcon Heavy has not yet flown the three times necessary before the Air Force will consider using it.



  • mkent

    “This grouping however might make it impossible for SpaceX to win the contract, as the company’s Falcon 9 rocket might not be capable of launching all five satellites…”

    I can’t find where I saw it, but I read somewhere that while each competitor is required to bid on all five launches or get a waiver, the three GPS satellites will be awarded as a group and the other two will be awarded individually.

    That, in my opinion, makes it likely that SpaceX will win the three GPS launches and ULA will win the other two.

  • Dick Eagleson

    This is pretty much a re-post of a comment I made over at the Space News site on the linked article. Bottom line? This mission “bundle” may actually favor SpaceX.

    We already know Falcon 9 can handle GPS 3 birds just fine as is. Contracts already won by SpaceX confirm this. So much for 3 of the 5 missions in this “bundle.”

    The payloads described for the other two missions don’t look to be anywhere near massive enough to need a Falcon Heavy to put them where they need to go.

    The only thing that might bias either mission toward ULA would be a need for vertical integration. It’s not obvious that would apply in either case. If either or both missions do need vertical integration, though, SpaceX will be able to provide it well before the expected launch dates. Depending upon the order in which upcoming mods to LC-39A are done, SpaceX might have vertical integration capability there even before the bids are due.

    Two pair of GSSAP satellites have already been launched. Each time, they went up on ULA Delta IV M+(4,2) vehicles. This vehicle has a max GTO payload over two full metric tons less than a current-model expendable Falcon 9.

    The GSSAP birds don’t actually go to GEO. As one of their jobs is to keep watch on objects in GEO, their operational orbits are said to take them either somewhat below or somewhat above GEO. The current F9 may well be able to put a pair of these birds where they need to go and still recover the 1st stage. The upcoming Block 5 almost certainly will be able to do so.

    Even if SpaceX has to bid an expendable F9 for this mission, though, it should still be able to beat ULA’s price, even if – as seems likely – ULA bids an Atlas V instead of a Delta IV.

    As for the other twin-payload mission, neither payload looks very heavy and the orbits to be reached will probably be LEO-ish. Again, a current or Block 5 F9 won’t have any trouble launching these recoverably.

    The Wide Field of View Testbed is a roughly six foot cube topping a Millenium Space Systems Aquila M8 bus – which is, itself, a roughly six foot cube. The M8 is the biggest bus in the Aquila series, but is described as a “smallsat” bus.

    The Propulsive EELV Secondary Payload Adaptor looks to be pretty much a current ESPA ring with a small propulsion module in what would otherwise be empty space at its center. An ESPA ring is designed to fit between a standard payload fixture and a larger payload with up to six secondary payloads arranged hexagonally around its perimeter. This new version is apparently intended to be released, following primary payload release, and to use its motor to put its secondary payloads into more suitable orbits than that taken by the primary payload.

    To the extent that this “bundle” of missions looks like it’s being “teed-up” for a particular bidder, I’d have to say it looks more SpaceX-favoring than ULA-favoring.

    As the next five-mission bundle discussed in the article is dominated by NRO payloads, that one may prove more ULA-friendly than this first one.

  • Anthony Domanico


    I’m curious how you arrived at the conclusion that the latter two satellites will be awarded to ULA. Could you elaborate?

    I realize that in the meantime until Blue Origin is certified that the DoD has a vested interest in “throwing ULA a bone” here and there, but why “the other two” versus awarding the GPS contracts? Thanks.

  • Dick Eagleson


    Blue Origin may well never be certified for EELV payloads. Bezos has said on more than one occasion that he has no interest in pursuing such certification. I’m inclined to take him at his word.

    SpaceX went after EELV certification because it meant additional revenue. SpaceX needs revenue. Blue will have revenue, but it doesn’t face a similar need for it. Bezos has his vision to pursue and is quite able to run Blue at a loss for an extended period.

    DoD launch revenue isn’t, it seems, worth pursuing given the intrusion and hassle that would be involved. It’s one thing to need to take in “lodgers” regardless of their behavior, but, if there’s no actual need, then one might quite reasonably wish to spare one’s organization the disruption of strangers trooping in and out at all hours. Blue is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose its clients to a far greater degree than SpaceX.

  • LocalFluff

    DARPA will launch smallsats on India’s PSLV launcher. That surprises me. Bringing international competition into the game. Sure, only smallsats, but it’s still DARPA.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Um, that’s a bit more complicated, actually.

    DARPA isn’t looking to launch on an Indian vehicle on its own account. The DARPA cubesat in question is part of a large aggregation of smallsats put together by Spaceflight, Inc. – a rideshare broker – to inaugurate service of their SHERPA multiple deployer module. That, in turn, was supposed to launch later this year as a secondary payload behind a single primary payload on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

    The primary mission has been delayed. Spaceflight has used Indian PSLV’s as rideshare platforms before, so it just made another such arrangement for the whole batch of sats that were originally to go up on Falcon 9 and SHERPA. The presence of the DARPA sat in the aggregation to be launched and deployed as rideshares is just a coincidence.

    Perhaps a problematical one, though. It’s not clear DARPA can allow its bird to fly on the Indian vehicle. All will become clearer as the late 2017 launch date for the PSLV approaches.

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