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Pentagon picks SpaceX, ULA to launch national security missions

Space logo Space 10/8/2020 Amy Thompson
The U.S. Department of Defense has picked SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as its primary national security payload launch providers. Left: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch. Right: ULA's planned Vulcan Centaur rocket. © Provided by Space The U.S. Department of Defense has picked SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as its primary national security payload launch providers. Left: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch. Right: ULA's planned Vulcan Centaur rocket.

The Department of Defense is sticking with SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as its two primary launch services for U.S. national security missions for the foreseeable future. 

In an announcement Friday (Aug. 7), U.S. Space Force and Air Force officials said SpaceX and ULA have won military launch contracts potentially worth billions to launch national security payloads over the next five years, with ULA receiving 60% of the satellite launch contracts and SpaceX receiving 40%. 

The awards were part of a four-way launch services competition known as National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement announced in 2018. SpaceX and ULA were up against Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin. 

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SpaceX was actually left out of the first round, with the Air Force awarding development dollars to ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin in the amount of $967 million, $792 million and $500 million respectively. But the California-based rocket builder ultimately won a piece of the prize. 

"This was an extremely tough decision and I appreciate the hard work industry completed to adapt their commercial launch systems to affordably and reliably meet our more stressing national security requirements," Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the Space and Missile Systems Center Launch Enterprise, said in a statement.

The Air Force selected SpaceX's existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rocket for national security launches,  along with ULA's new Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is still in development. Currently estimated to make its first flight in 2021, ULA's Vulcan Centaur will end the country's reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine currently used by the company's current workhorse, the Atlas V rocket. 

The Department of Defense has been trying to end reliance on the Russian engine and awarded ULA the first-round development funding to help develop the new rocket. The Vulcan Centaur will be powered by a Blue Origin BE-4 engine

So far, the Air Force has ordered three missions for 2022 under the new deals.  SpaceX will earn $316 million to launch one mission, designated USSF-67, in the latter part of 2022. ULA was awarded $337 million to launch two missions — USSF-51 and USSF-106 — scheduled for the second and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2022, respectively.

Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman both expressed disappointment for not being chosen in the phase 2 contracts, but are expected to continue development of their respective launch vehicles. Blue Origin is currently developing a new orbital rocket, the New Glenn, while Northrop Grumman is developing the OmegA booster for future launches.

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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