SpaceX on Friday won part of an agreement with the Department of Defense to launch new rockets for the Space Force.
Under the agreement, which may be worth billions of dollars, SpaceX is supposed to launch about 40% of classified missions from 2022 through 2027. United Launch Alliance will fly the remaining 60%.
Competing proposals from Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, did not win.
To get to a point where it could win, SpaceX had to fight incumbent companies and even sue the US Air Force.
SpaceX has outmaneuvered its competitors in a high-stakes game of winning the Pentagon's favor — and earning the right to be one of its chariots to space.
The Department of Defense on Friday awarded Elon Musk's rocket company a 40% share of secretive Space Force launches planned from 2022 through 2027. The other 60% went to United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
"This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, [National Reconnaissance Office], and our launch service industry partners," William Roper, the USAF's assistant secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said in a press release. "Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space."
SpaceX is expected to launch 14 military and intelligence satellite missions, which will be managed by the recently formed Space Force. ULA will launch 20 missions, for a total of 34 classified launches. (That number could shift due to "warfighter requirements, constellation health, space vehicle readiness, and available funding," Capt. Jacob Bailey, a spokesperson for the US Air Force, told Business Insider in an email.)
Both companies earned their launch rights through the second phase of a DoD program called National Security Space Launch, or NSSL, which emphasizes "innovation and agility" in ensuring the US military's ability to launch payloads into orbit. And while SpaceX claimed fewer than half of the program's future contracts, this is nonetheless a remarkable victory for the company that Elon Musk founded in 2002.
The DoD made room for only two winners, and SpaceX successfully beat rival proposals submitted by Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos. (Both companies said in statements that they were "disappointed" by the decision.) What's more, SpaceX has fought for years to take on traditional rocket-industry competitors, in one case even suing the US Air Force to compete for contracts.
Now SpaceX is looking at a serious increase in capability and prestige — and a boost to its bottom line measuring in billions.
SpaceX's long fight comes to one very lucrative end
SpaceX's big win through NSSL was a saga years in the making.
NSSL is an updated, expanded, and rebranded version of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which ran from 1994 through 2019. The former program aimed to develop two reliable and affordable heavy-lift rockets from two providers.
For that first program, the military tapped Boeing to build Delta IV rockets and Lockheed Martin to make Atlas V rockets. The two companies ended up forming ULA as a 50-50 joint venture, in part to settle a wild racketeering lawsuit and investigation into Boeing.
That merger in 2006 reduced the playing field to one launch provider and caused heavy-lift rocket prices to soar. When the Air Force awarded ULA a "block buy" agreement for 28 rockets worth about $11 billion, making the company the sole launcher of most national security missions, Musk became incensed — and SpaceX sued the government.
"This contract is costing the US taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason," Musk told NPR in May 2014, describing the rocket launches as "insanely expensive."
In a post on SpaceX's website, the company said each ULA launch cost up to $400 million and that the contract created a "monopoly" which prevented "any competition from other launch providers." SpaceX claimed it filed suit "not seeking to be awarded any launch contracts" but just wanting "the opportunity to compete — and not just for SpaceX, but for any qualified company."
SpaceX settled the suit in 2015 with the Air Force, which agreed to open more missions to competitive bids. The military certified SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket a few months later, concluding that approximately two-year process.
Both events opened the door for SpaceX to win its first military launch contract in April 2016 through EELV. That mission — to launch a new GPS satellite — helped SpaceX develop its relationship with the Air Force, leading in part to the flight and certification of Falcon Heavy, which a former DoD official previously told Business Insider was an "Apollo moment" for the space industry.
It's not certain how much this new agreement is worth to each company, but the first planned mission for SpaceX, which is slated to launch in late 2022, is priced at about $316 million. Should SpaceX's other launches have a similar price tag, the company would haul in more than $4 billion from 2022 through 2027. If the prices are on par with previous Falcon Heavy missions for the DoD — around $130 million to $165 million per flight — the value may be closer to $2 billion.
SpaceX made about $2 billion from launching rockets in 2018, according to CNBC, and about $1.2 billion in 2019, according to Forbes — which makes the new DoD agreement a potentially massive boost to the company's bottom line.
ULA's first two launches will cost a total of $337 million, according to an Air Force press release. If ULA keeps its pricing around $169 million per launch, it may earn more than $3.3 billion for its new launch contracts.
A move to all-American rockets
Like its predecessor program, NSSL is supposed to foster competition within the rocket industry, create more options for launching secret military payloads, and save the government billions of dollars.
But the pressing goal of the rebranded program is to end US reliance on a Russian-made rocket engine called the RD-180.
For years, that engine has powered ULA's Atlas V, America's go-to rocket for launching military satellites. However, Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014 strained relations with the US and triggered sanctions, leading to RD-180 supply chain problems. Use of RD-180 engines — and, by extension, US military access to space — thus became precarious.
Even as SpaceX filed suit over the Russian sourcing of Atlas V engines, it did not wait for lucrative government contracts to work on Falcon Heavy, its competing rocket system. Over five years, Musk said, SpaceX spent more than $500 million in private funding to develop the new launch vehicle. The company flexed its prowess during Falcon Heavy's first launch on February 6, 2018, by flying past Mars a payload that only Musk could dream up: his own Tesla Roadster with a spacesuit-clad dummy in the driver's seat.
The launch, while audacious, showed the Air Force that Falcon Heavy worked, and it ultimately helped SpaceX earn the military's OK in 2019 to compete for contracts with the new vehicle. SpaceX won its 40% share of NSSL missions by proposing launches with Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 rockets, both of which use Merlin 1D engines manufactured by SpaceX in the US.
Meanwhile, ULA won by proposing its forthcoming heavy-lift rocket system called Vulcan-Centaur, which will also be partly reusable. To avoid using Russian RD-180 engines, ULA made the unusual move of hiring a would-be competitor: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
Under an agreement announced in late 2014, Blue Origin will sell its new BE-4 rocket engines to ULA. The same engine design is planned for use in Blue Origin's forthcoming and partly reusable New Glenn rocket.
An October 2018 NSSL award gave Blue Origin $500 million to develop New Glenn, $792 million to Northrop Grumman to develop a new rocket called OmegA, and ULA $967 million to develop Vulcan. SpaceX was left out of the $2.2 billion in awards, prompting the company to sue the government again in 2019. (The case is ongoing, according to the latest court records.)
For the latest phase of NSSL, all four companies pitched their new rockets. Blue Origin put forth its New Glenn and Northrop Grumman its OmegA designs, but those bids with yet-to-launch rockets didn't pass Air Force muster.
"We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future," Bob Smith, Blue Origin's CEO, said in a statement on Friday. He added that the company "is very proud that our BE-4 engine will power United Launch Alliance's Vulcan launch vehicle" and "end reliance on Russian-built engines."
In making its picks, Roper told reporters on Friday that it leaned most heavily on "technical factors" and, to a lesser degree, price and past performance, according to Ars Technica. ULA's Vulcan booster also has yet to fly, but variants of its upper-stage Centaur rocket have flown more than 250 times. So Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman may have lost over having not yet test-launched or certified their vehicles. (A Space Force representative said it "was an extremely tough decision" in the Air Force's press release.)
Prior to Friday's announcement, SpaceX had secured three DoD launch contracts for Falcon Heavy. One was the Space Test Program-2 launch on June 25, 2019, which carried 24 research satellites — and a small cache of cremated human remains — into orbit.
The second, called Air Force Space Command-44, is due to launch in late 2020, according to Spaceflight Now. The classified mission is part of a $297 million contract that also includes the launches of two different Falcon 9 rockets, each of which have one booster (versus Falcon Heavy's three). SpaceX's third Falcon Heavy flight for the US military, called AFSPC-52, is a $130 million mission also supposed to launch in late 2020, but may not fly until early 2021.
SpaceX ignored Business Insider's request for comment.
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