SpaceX and ULA face off for new USAF contract

The US Air Force (USAF) is opening up a massive new contract for the launch of satellites to unprecedented competition.

USAF has opened bidding on a multi-million dollar contract for a company to deliver its new ‘next-generation’ GPS-3 satellites into orbit.

These launches comprise the first large competitive satellite launch contract from the USAF in more than a decade, as part of its EELV (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle) program.

Due to be launched in 2017, these new satellites need to be propelled to much higher geostationary orbits than traditional communications satellites.

In the past these military launches were handled almost exclusively by favoured US defence contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin. These two companies recently merged their space launch wings into a single entity called United Launch Alliance (ULA) raising monopoly concerns.

However, now a new player in the space launch industry, SpaceX is now also vying for these extremely lucrative launch contracts.

In 2013 when SpaceX first announced that it was interested in launching these, as well as other military satellites, it was rejected due to a lack of certification for its Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

Now, following a series of successful launches, this certification process has been fast-tracked and, according to reporting by the Air Force Times, the company will be cleared to compete “no later than June”.

SpaceX welcomes these actions,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX in a press statement. “We look forward to completing the certification process and competing for EELV missions.”

While the first three GPS-3 satellites are already confirmed to be launched by ULA, SpaceX plans to compete for the launch of the rest of the proposed constellation.

The company argues that its Falcon 9 rocket is significantly cheaper than the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets operated by its competitors. In addition, all parts of their craft are manufactured in the US, while ULA’s rockets rely on critical engine components produced in Russia which are currently sanctioned.

Barring a major disaster for either company, the USAF favours the use of at least two separate launch vehicles for redundancy, meaning that it is likely that both companies will be awarded a share of the launches.

This competition is expected to be the first of many in the EELV program.