The Space Force believes there is an opportunity for new players in the national security launch market

The US Space Force has contracts with two space launch companies, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, to launch intelligence and military satellites. However, when these contracts expire for renewal in 2024, the Space Force may explore collaborating with more than two corporations. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the Chief of Space Operations, informed Congress on April 27.

“We are actually at a transformative moment in space,” Raymond said during a hearing on the Air Force’s fiscal year 2023 budget request before the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington), the committee’s chairman, grilled Raymond on the Space Force’s future intentions to purchase space launch services as additional firms enter the market. Smith has long been an opponent of the military launch program, claiming that it does not offer enough opportunity for newcomers.

Phase 2 contracts for National Security Space Launch were awarded to ULA and SpaceX in 2020. Over the course of the five-year contract, ULA received 60% of the expected national security missions and SpaceX received 40%.

In readiness for an intense rivalry for Phase 3 contracts, the Space Force has met with the launch sector and asked for their comments. There’s a chance that more than 2 launch providers will be chosen to “create competition,” according to Raymond.

“I believe there are prospects for more competitiveness with a manifest that is getting more significant in numbers,” Raymond added. Officials with the Space Force believe the Phase 3 contract will encompass services other than standard deployments from Earth to orbit. There is interest in purchasing in-space transportation services, such as those provided by space tugs that transfer satellites between orbits. Smith has urged the military in recent years to allow new competitors in the launch sector, like Blue Origin, based in Smith’s home state, to compete.

“I feel we have an enormous opportunity in space,” he added, adding that “there are so many firms, definitely the big ones that we’ve heard regarding, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others, but then gosh, perhaps a dozen others which are smaller.  And I believe that if we can foster competition, we will be able to get a better product at a better price.  So I intend to make certain that we do.”

Blue Origin is working on a huge rocket called New Glenn that will compete with SpaceX and ULA for national security contracts. Last year, two well-funded newcomers to the small launch market, Relativity Space and Rocket Lab stated that they are working on medium rockets for the commercial market, as well as possibly for Phase 3 of NSSL.

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