Space Force releases NSSL phase three second draft

The United States Space Force (USSF) recently released a second draft of a request for proposals (RFP) for the forthcoming phase three of the national security space launch (NSSL) program. Phase three will cover launch orders over a five-year period starting in October 2024 — the start of fiscal year (FY) 2025 — and has been structured to encourage more providers to enter.

The NSSL program provides most of the space launch contracts for the United States Department of Defense (DOD), including flights for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Colonel Douglas Pentecost and Colonel Chad Melone of the USSF provided more detail about the new draft RFP in a teleconference on Wednesday, July 19.

The NSSL program is currently in phase two, which has two providers, ULA and SpaceX, splitting the available missions. During the first four years of the phase two ordering period, there have been awards of three, four, eight, and 12 missions. The final set of phase two orders next year is expected to include 21 missions.

Phase three of the NSSL program has a slightly different structure to help encourage competition and bring in new launch providers. This phase has an initial term of five years and will begin awarding mission assignments in FY2025, with the flights to begin in FY2027. A total of around 90 missions are expected to be awarded over the five-year period.

Firefly Alpha FLTA002 on the pad at VSFB before launch. Systems like these could compete for lane one contracts. (Credit: Michael Baylor for NSF)

There are two different sets of contracts for phase three with very different sets of requirements. Lane one is for more risk-tolerant missions that are generally going to low-Earth orbit (LEO), and it has far fewer constraints on the launch providers.

Lane two is much less risk tolerant and requires the ability to meet stricter performance requirements. This lane is designed to meet the requirements of expensive payloads going to unique orbits with a very high success rate.

The lane one and lane two competitions will happen in parallel, with companies able to submit proposals and win contracts in both lanes. It is expected that each company would propose one system for each orbit in lane two, but lane one provides the ability to offer different or multiple systems.

Electron lifts off from Launch Complex 1B in New Zealand with two of NASA’s TROPICS satellites. Electron has flown DOD missions and could also win lane one contracts. (Credit: Rocket Lab)

Lane one

Lane one launch providers do not need to meet the extensive set of requirements faced by those submitting proposals for lane two. Smaller vehicles can be offered, multiple launch sites are not required, and the launch systems don’t need to go through the same rigorous qualification process needed for lane two.

The launch providers can offer what they are capable of providing. There is an annual onramp provision that allows new providers to win contracts, and existing providers to add new launch systems to its contracts. When a launch vehicle is ready to compete, then it will have an opportunity within the next year to do so.

This second draft of the RFP has a reduced minimum lift capability of 1,000 kg to a LEO reference orbit, with the ability to carry up to 6,800 kg over a series of missions to complete a contract. This allows many of the upcoming new launch vehicles to compete.

Those chosen will receive indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts that make them eligible to compete for a pool of around 30 launches over the term of phase three. A majority of those, around 20 missions, will be for the constellations that make up the Space Development Agency’s new proliferated warfighter space architecture.

New Glenn, powered by BE-4 engines, ascends to space. New Glenn could compete for lane two contracts. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Lane two

Lane two is analogous to the current NSSL phase two. Lane two providers are required to achieve certification for launching to a set of reference orbits that represent the full needs of the DOD satellite missions, including launching directly to geostationary orbit (GEO) and supporting large payloads.

Other requirements include having launch facilities on both the East and West coasts, having the ability to support vertical integration if needed, and giving the government insight into the performance of the launch vehicles when they fly for other customers.

The original draft RFP called for two launch providers in this lane, with the top selection getting 60% of the flights and the other 40%, similar to the current setup in NSSL phase two. The new draft includes three providers in lane two. The top two selections will handle about 50 missions, still split 60%/40% between them. Most of the programs launching spacecraft in lane two will only need to make sure their satellites can launch on these top two providers.

The third-place company will be able to fly seven missions, five of which are global positioning system (GPS) satellites delivered to medium-Earth orbit (MEO), and two that deliver its payloads directly to GEO.

GPS III SV05 is encapsulated inside a Falcon 9 fairing ahead of launch. (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

The first GPS mission would be ordered in the second year of the contract. The small set of missions constrains the time and money that needs to be spent on mission integration studies while also giving some harder missions that show the provider can meet the full requirements. These five GPS missions were contained in lane two for the first draft of the RFP.

To be eligible to win a lane two contract, a company needs to provide a credible plan to certify its launch system by the beginning of FY2027, but some provisions of the contract encourage the competitors to achieve certification before then. Those providers with plans to be certified earlier can receive a “strength” when the proposals are evaluated, improving its score.

Those who get certified later can also lose some of its potential mission assignments. This lane has a new mechanism to help keep launches from being delayed by late certification of a launch system. At the beginning of October each year, the NSSL program will see which of the lane two providers have achieved certification and are therefore eligible to be awarded missions.

An artist’s concept of Vulcan lifting off from SLC-41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Vulcan could also fly future USSF and NRO missions. (Credit: ULA)

Colonel Pentecost explained “for the first order year mission assignments, providers must be certified by 1 Oct. 2024 to be assigned a mission. If a system is not flying, those missions will not be ordered from that provider and they will move to the other lane two launch provider.” If the third lane two provider is not yet certified when its missions are ready to be awarded, those flights will go into the pool that is split between the top two providers.

For the phase three contract, offerors propose one set of prices that would apply regardless of whether the company wins first, second, or third place. Each lane two provider is eligible to receive up to $100 million per year to cover its costs of participation in the program, including maintaining multiple launch sites, fleet surveillance, setting up secure facilities, etc. These costs will be included in the total price when the proposals are evaluated.

It is expected that United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, and Blue Origin will all bid for lane two contracts, though it is hoped that others will bid as well. It is also hoped that with more providers the USSF can hedge against launch scarcity and get better competition and innovation in the long run.

Falcon Heavy ascends through the fog on USSF-44 mission. (Credit: Sawyer Rosenstein for NSF)

Next steps

This week the NSSL program also held an industry day to discuss the new draft RFP with prospective bidders, with plans to conduct one-on-one discussions with those companies next week.

The final RFP is currently targeted for release by September of this year, with proposals due by December. Contract awards and first-year mission orders would happen in October 2025. As always, there is a possibility that some details of the RFP will change between the second draft and the final solicitation.

Regardless of the details of the final RFP, NSSL phase three is another significant step in providing for future national security launches while offering more opportunities to more players in the space industry.

(Lead image: Falcon Heavy launching STP-2 from Pad 39A. Credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF)

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