ULA wins Air Force launch contract

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Capitalism in space: The Air Force has awarded ULA a $191 million launch contract in only the third competitively bid Air Force contract in decades.

The Air Force put the STP-3 launch up for bid in September 2016, giving SpaceX and ULA until December to submit proposals. It’s just the third competitively-bid national security space launch contract after an era where ULA — a joint venture between defense industry giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin — was the government’s sole source for launches.

The effort is part of the Air Force’s “Phase 1A,” an effort to “reintroduce a competitive procurement environment” into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, the service said. This particular phase is set to cover 15 competitively-bid launches through 2019, at which point the military hopes to have several launch providers as options.

SpaceX won the first two launch contracts, including a GPS 3 launch that was awarded in March.

This contract award is not as competitive as they make it seem. I suspect that if the Air Force was required to take the lowest bid, SpaceX would have won, since its launch prices are far less than $191 million. Instead, I think the Air Force gave this contract to ULA because SpaceX had won the previous two bids, and they wanted to give some business to ULA in order to keep that company viable.

In the short run, this policy will keep ULA above water. In the long run, the company is in serious trouble if it can’t lower its launch prices significantly.



  • aeroeng14

    Bob, this was a clear cut payload performance issue between Atlas 551 and F9.


    John Taylor, a spokesman for SpaceX, said in a statement that “the mission performance required that we bid Falcon Heavy,” a rocket that is still in the process of receiving final certification from the government for military launches. “We did submit a bid, but with the knowledge that our first Falcon Heavy flight might occur after the time of the award,” Taylor said. “Given we have not flown Falcon Heavy, we did not anticipate winning this mission.”

    Even then given the time the response was due, I don’t think F9 block 5 performance increases were truly known outside of back of the napkin calculations and certainly not to the fidelity required for a bid.

  • aeroeng14: If what you say is true, then this contract was not really bid competitively. SpaceX might have submitted a bid, but the Air Force never took it seriously.

    Regardless, when Falcon Heavy is flying, its $90 million price tag will make it very difficult for ULA with its own $191 million pricetag.

  • mkent

    1) If the scuttlebutt is right, then SpaceX can’t perform this mission at any price, as it requires direct insertion into GEO. That is beyond Falcon’s current capability.

    2) $90 million is for a reduced-capability Falcon Heavy. Previous versions of SpaceX’s website listed a full-capability Falcon Heavy at $125 million. Add in another $35 million or so to meet government requirements, and you’re getting pretty close to an Atlas V price these days.

    The Atlas V that will perform this mission is an Atlas V 551 with a propulsive ESPA ring, a top-of-the-line Atlas.

    Apples to apples, SpaceX and ULA aren’t all that far off.

  • LocalFluff

    It’s just that the Falcon Heavy apple puts three times more mass into orbit than the small old ULA rockets. I don’t understand how anything ULA can do is beyond SpaceX’ capability. Falcon 9 single core is more powerful than any other rocket in the world, except for that Chinese one that has been fired twice thus far.

  • mkent

    There’s more to space launch than throw weight.

    SpaceX’s upper stage does not currently have the endurance necessary to place a payload — any payload — into GEO. They’re working on it, but they’re not there yet. Watch the STP-2 mission late next year for a demonstration of this capability.

    Even then there will be some other missions that SpaceX won’t be able to do (such as those requiring vertical integration, on-pad crew access, and some other specialized requirements).

  • Dick Eagleson


    I don’t know what Atlas V 551’s maximum payload is for direct insertion to GEO, but it has to be significantly less than its max payload to GTO and that is 8,900 kg. Falcon Heavy has a GTO capability, in expendable mode, of three times this mass. Its direct insertion to GEO capability – once it gets a 2nd stage with bigger batteries – will be less, but still a lot more than whatever Atlas V 551’s max is.

    Thus, it seems quite unlikely that a fully-expendable FH would be needed to do a mission comparable to STP-3. For that reason, I don’t think the putative $125 million fully expendable price applies as a base. Starting from a base price of $90 million, SpaceX would come in below the Atlas V 551 price by several tens of millions. Apples to apples, SpaceX is going to win on price every time once FH is EELV-certified.

    That doesn’t mean ULA won’t get any missions. DoD wants assured access just like NASA does for CRS. SpaceX doesn’t get all the CRS missions either even though it is considerably cheaper, per mission, than Orbital-ATK. USAF, like NASA will probably settle into a pattern of tossing every third mission, on average, to the higher-cost supplier just to keep them around and available.

    As to FH’s EELV certification, that isn’t likely to take all that long. EELV certification requires three successful missions, plus a lot of paperwork engineering reviews. The STP-2 mission should – according to currently announced SpaceX plans – be the third of these for FH. The paperwork process should be appreciably quicker than the ten months it took for Falcon 9 as a lot of the Falcon 9 stuff will carry over directly. The STP-2 mission is not going to occur late in 2018, but fairly early – perhaps even in 1Q2018. FH may well be as little as a year away from EELV-certification.

    As for vertical integration and crew access, both of these are going to be provided at LC-39A. It may well be the case that both capabilities will be retrofitted to LC-39A at the same time the modifications there to accommodate FH are underway. Vertical integration and crew access mods will involve modifying and adding things to the existing Shuttle Fixed Service Structure. The mods needed for FH support will be done to other parts of the pad. Both efforts could proceed in parallel without colliding with each other.

    I don’t know for sure that SpaceX intends to do this, but I think even the unmanned Dragon 2 test flight will require that the crew access hardware be present so it can be tested. That mission will occur either late this year or early next. It would make good sense to get all the LC-39A mods needed done in one campaign and ASAP.

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