The U.S. Air Force has identified the launch of a next-generation GPS navigation satellite for the first in a series of competitive rocket procurements between United Launch Alliance and SpaceX, service officials announced Wednesday.
The Air Force released a draft request for proposals Wednesday for the launch a GPS 3 navigation satellite. An Air Force spokesperson said a specific spacecraft was not associated with the draft solicitation, which is designed to gauge industry interest and is the first step in a competition expected to last several months.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is on track to be certified to launch the Air Force’s most critical class of payloads in June, giving the company the right to win contracts that exclusively went to rival United Launch Alliance since its formation with the merger of Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s rocket divisions in 2006.
The GPS 3 launch competition is the first of nine launch opportunities the Pentagon plans to open for bids through 2017.
Two of the competitions between SpaceX and ULA are scheduled for this year, followed by seven open procurements in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, according to Air Force Secretary Deborah James, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 29.
Another 25 launches of military communications, navigation, early warning and spy satellites will be competed from 2018 through 2022, she said.
ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets were developed under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program in the 1990s. After initially flying with commercial satellite payloads, the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 have primarily launched military spacecraft over the last decade, receiving all of the Air Force’s EELV launch contracts.
The first three next-generation GPS 3 satellites will be launched by ULA — two on the Delta 4 rocket and one on an Atlas 5. Lockheed Martin is building at least eight of the new-model GPS satellites, which are due to begin launching in 2017 to replace aging GPS 2-series platforms and modernize the military-run navigation network.
The Air Force awarded ULA a $11 billion sole-source contract last year for 36 rocket cores — hardware to cover 28 launches. Air Force and ULA officials said the one-time “block buy” purchase of rocket hardware gave the military $4.4 billion in savings from earlier budget estimates.
Air Force leaders plan to introduce competition to the national security launch program with the nine missions up for bids through 2017, which will be up for grabs by either ULA or SpaceX. The bulk of the launches in the period are earmarked to ULA under the terms of the block buy.
Then the Air Force will open bidding for all military launches starting in 2018, James said.
SpaceX says it can launch the satellites for the Defense Department and the National Reconnaissance Office at less cost than ULA. The Air Force began a series of engineering and financial reviews in 2013 to certify the Falcon 9 rocket to join ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 in the Pentagon’s stable of launch vehicles.
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