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‘Groundbreaking day’: Alabama rocket builder United Launch Alliance wins National Security Space Launch competition

The U.S. Space Force on Friday announced that United Launch Alliance (ULA) was awarded a firm, fixed-price, indefinite-delivery contract to power the majority of the missions on the Department of the Air Force’s newest launch procurement.

This contract resulted from a competitive award under the department’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Agreement.

ULA’s winning submission for this competition phase was the Vulcan Centaur rocket.

“ULA is honored to be selected as one of two launch providers in this procurement,” Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

“Vulcan Centaur is the right choice for critical national security space missions and was purpose built to meet all of the requirements of our nation’s space launch needs,” he continued. “For decades, we have been a trusted partner to safely and securely deliver strategic national security space assets for our nation’s defense and this award shows the continued confidence of our customer in the commitment and dedication of our people to safeguard these missions by reliably launching our country’s most critical and challenging missions.”

ULA is the nation’s only full-range national security space launch provider and is the most experienced, with 100% mission success on its now-140 launches.

At the company’s world-class factory in Decatur, production of the first Vulcan Centaur rocket continues, with shipment to the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida scheduled for late this year for processing in preparation for its first launch in 2021.

The competitive process of the Phase 2 launch service procurement was designed to ensure the United States has continued assured access to space and supports a robust domestic national security industrial base.

The Space Force awarded 60% of the missions to United Launch Alliance and 40% to SpaceX. The contracts span fiscal years 2020 through 2024 with launches occurring through 2027. The missions will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. As of now, 34 total missions are estimated between the contracts, however that could change depending on budgetary fluctuations and changing priorities.

ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman were awarded contracts under Phase 1 of the NSSL program. These contracts, totaling $3.2 billion, went toward the development of American rockets, including the Vulcan Centaur. SpaceX took part in this competition as well but ultimately was not awarded a contract.

Phase 2 as designed was always going to be a 60%/40% split between two companies. All four companies that participated in Phase 1 competed for Phase 2, with ULA winning the largest contract worth $337 million. SpaceX beat the remaining two competitors out for a $316 million contract.

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur utilizes industry best practices for complex systems design – blending flight proven hardware for reliability with new innovative technologies for affordability. The rocket will utilize Blue Origin BE-4 engines built in Huntsville, helping end America’s reliance on Russian RD-180 engines.

“This is a groundbreaking day, culminating years of strategic planning and effort by the Department of the Air Force, NRO and our launch service industry partners,” Dr. William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, stated. “Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space. Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department off Russian RD-180 engines.”

U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-04) both celebrated Friday’s news in respective tweets.

“Our Atlas and Delta rockets have been the backbone of American space launch for decades and with Vulcan Centaur we continue to build on this progressive history of technology and advancement,” added Bruno. “Vulcan Centaur provides higher performance and greater affordability while continuing to deliver our unmatched reliability and orbital precision that will continue to provide reliable, on-time access to space well into the future.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn