The Space Force next year will select launch providers for Phase 3 of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program. Industry proposals are due Dec. 15.
This next phase of NSSL marks a significant evolution in how the Space Force approaches launch, leaning into the commercial market in a way that it had largely avoided in the past.
The Space Force in this procurement is hedging against future uncertainty, trying to capitalize on commercial launch and build out for the future.
To recap the strategy for Phase 3, it is divided into two lanes.
The first is for more risk-tolerant missions, with upwards of 30 flights projected between 2025 and 2034. Any company with a launch vehicle that meets the minimum performance requirement and has either previously launched to orbit — or has a plan to launch within 12 months of the Dec. 15 proposal submission — is eligible for this lane.
Companies like ABL Systems, Firefly Aerospace, and Rocket Lab are expected to bid for Lane 1’s indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract, as are the large launch providers — SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and possibly Blue Origin.
Lane 2 is open to heavy lift launch providers capable of meeting all the NSSL requirements, including being able to deliver payloads to the government’s 12 reference orbits. To bid, providers must be certified or have an approved certification Plan.
In 2020, ULA and SpaceX won Phase 2 NSSL launch contracts and are, at present, the only two companies who have been previously certified to fly these high-end missions, albeit ULA did this using its legacy Atlas and Delta launch systems and has not yet achieved certification of its new Vulcan launch vehicle.
This new solicitation also opens the door for a potential third vendor, with most analysts expecting Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to compete for this additional slot with its still-in-development New Glenn rocket. To qualify, Blue Origin must have a…