CLARIFIED: Adds SMC Comment On Launch Providers
WASHINGTON: Last night the Air Force released the final Request For Proposals for five launch contracts for NRO and Air Force Space Command.
The most intriguing payload is a code-word program, shared by the NRO and Air Force Space Command, known as SILENTBARKER, which has been described as a new and classified space situational capability. On top of those come launches for a big bird, SBIRS GEO-5, and then AFSPC-44, about which we know virtually nothing. Since it’s an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle contract, and at least some of the satellites appear to be birds that require heavy lift, we can be reasonably sure some of these are targeted to ULA’s Atlas V and Space X’s Falcon 9 Heavy. A ULA heavy lift launch can easily cost north of $200 million, though the cheapest ones go for $109 million. The cost for a SpaceX heavy launch may be around $90 million.
The firm-fixed-price contracts will include launch vehicle production, mission integration, and launch operations. SBIRS GEO-5 and AFSPC-44 are planned to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center in fiscal 2021. NROL-87 is planned to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in fiscal 2021. NROL-85 can be launched from the Eastern or Western Range and is planned to be launched in fiscal 2021. SILENTBARKER is planned to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station or Kennedy Space Center in fiscal 2022.
UPDATE: We’ve got some very useful clarifying details from the folks at SMC, who run these contracts.
“This is a full and open competition. However, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX are the only contractors certified to deliver national security space satellites to orbit,” SMC says in an email. “At present, ULA is the only launch provider certified for the SILENTBARKER and AFSPC-44 missions. However, it is anticipated that in the near future SpaceX will be launching the Falcon Heavy, which may be capable of meeting the SILENTBARKER and AFSPC-44 requirements.”
So, IF the first launch of Falcon 9 Heavy is successful, then SpaceX may be considered for the SILENTBARKER and AFSPC-44 launches, with emphasis on the “may.” The US government usually requires three consecutive successful launches before certifying a launch system, although they may give SpaceX the rational benefit of the doubt given that the Heavy is a modified version of the Falcon 9 and they share a great deal of parts and systems engineering. UPDATE ENDS
Readers may be wondering why SpaceX remains in contention after the apparent loss of the Zuma payload.
SpaceX remains in contention for this. “Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, has said publicly, appearing to rule out any faults on Elon Musk’s company’s side due to the recent apparent loss of the Zuma satellite. The first launch of a Falcon 9 heavy is scheduled for Feb. 6.
This RFP is part of Phase 1A of the EELV service launch program, which includes 14 launches so far. The first one, United Launch Alliance’s launch of the first GPS III satellite, is set for May.