The US Department of Defense has selected its two main rocket companies to orbit satellites in the coming years: longtime military launcher supplier United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX. ULA will receive 60% of the department’s satellite launch contracts, while SpaceX will receive 40%.
The two companies have beaten rivals Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin to launch DoD missions between fiscal years 2022 and 2027. That’s a big price, as each individual launch can cost more than $ 100 million. The DoD has not committed to an exact number of launches during that five-year period, but it has awarded SpaceX $ 316 million and ULA $ 337 million “to meet the launch dates of the fiscal year 2022 ”, according to a DoD press release.
“It was an extremely difficult decision and I appreciate the hard work of the industry to adapt their commercial launch systems to affordably and reliably meet our most stressful national security requirements,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, Director of the company’s launching Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement.
There is also an important step: the end of the use of the Atlas V rocket by this program. This rocket, manufactured by ULA, is based on the Russian RD-180 engine. But Russian engines have been a political minefield since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014; that year, NASA even suspended contact with Russia. Since then, the DoD has attempted to phase out its reliance on Russian technology. In 2018, it awarded ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin combined contracts of $ 2 billion to develop next-generation rockets.
SpaceX was not happy with this award – in 2019, they sued the government for the contract. The company argued that the price gave its competitors a head start in securing the launches.
In the end, the DoD passed over vehicles designed by Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. Instead, they chose the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which have been proven in flight. They also chose ULA’s future Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is currently scheduled to make its maiden flight in 2021.