The Air Force released a request for proposals (RFP) May 3 for Phase 2 of its launch service procurement (LSP) effort, with the intent to award contracts to two providers for missions launching through fiscal year 2027.

The LSP program is expected to award two companies with up to 25 launches over a five-year period under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) contract vehicle, formerly known as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). The effort will allow the Air Force to end reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine by leveraging U.S. commercial launch capabilities.

SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket, and passenger Arabsat-6A, on April 11.
SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket, and passenger Arabsat-6A, on April 11. (SpaceX0

“We must move forward now. We are answering Congress’ 2014 directive to transition off the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in a Friday statement. “The industrial base is ready and we will keep our most demanding National Security Space orbits on track.”

Launch companies including Blue Origin and  Space-X are expected to submit proposals, as well as Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems [NOC] and United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a joint launch venture between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT]. The contract, which is expected to be awarded in the second quarter of FY ’20, will procure launch services in fiscal years 2020 to 2024, according to the Air Force.

House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has already positioned himself as a critic of the speed with which the Air Force is moving to award these launch service procurement contracts. In a March 29 letter, he expressed concern that this new RFP “risks undermining the Air Force’s goal of maximizing and sustaining fair and open competition and without sufficient information to properly evaluate next generation launch systems.” (Defense Daily, March 29)

The Air Force last year awarded three launch service agreements (LSAs) to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA to help fund the development of new launch vehicles (Defense Daily, Oct. 10, 2018). ULA could receive up to $967 million in government development funds to help fund its Vulcan Centaur rocket development, while Northrop Grumman would get $792 million for its OmegA launch vehicle, which are both expected to be fielded by 2021. Blue Origin would be awarded up to $500 million to field its New Glenn rocket by 2020.

The Phase 2 LSP RFP is open to all companies regardless of whether they have a launch service agreement in place with the Air Force.