Air Force Awards GPS III Launch Services Contract To SpaceX

An artist's concept of the next-generation GPS III global position system satellite in orbit above the Earth.  Image Credit: USAF

An artist’s concept of the next-generation GPS III global position system satellite in orbit above the Earth. Image Credit: USAF

April 27, 2016 – The Air Force announced today the award of the first competitively sourced National Security Space (NSS) launch services contract in more than a decade. Space Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) was awarded a contract for Global Positioning System (GPS) III Launch Services. This is a firm-fixed price, standalone contract with a total value of $82,700,000.

SpaceX will provide the Government with a total launch solution for the GPS-III satellite, which includes launch vehicle production, mission integration, and launch operations and spaceflight certification. The launch will be the second GPS III launch and is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. in May 2018.

“This GPS III Launch Services contract award achieves a balance between mission success, meeting operational needs, lowering launch costs, and reintroducing competition for National Security Space missions,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander.

In actuality, there was very little competition in the process because Centennial-based United Launch Alliance (ULA) did not bid on the satellite launch, effectively ceding the competition to SpaceX.

ULA had been the sole provider of such launches since its creation in 2006, but said it was unable to submit a compliant bid because of the way the competition was structured, and because it lacked Russian-built RD-180 engines for its Atlas 5 rocket. ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno told reporters on October 2 that ULA did not have enough engines to bid for the GPS III launch, the first of nine military missions identified for possible competition.

“We look forward to working with the Air Force to address the obstacles to ULA’s participation in future launch competitions to enable a full and fair competition,” he said in a written statement to Reuters at that time.

U.S. lawmakers banned future use of the Russian engines after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. Since that time, the ban has been a point of heated discussion among lawmakers and although the ban has been weakened, ULA has been working toward an all-American rocket that won’t need the Russian engines. That rocket will take a few years to develop and test, however.

GPS III is the next generation of GPS satellites that will introduce new capabilities to meet the higher demands of both military and civilian users. The satellite is expected to provide improved anti-jamming capabilities as well as improved accuracy for precision navigation and timing. It will incorporate the common L1C signal, which is compatible with the European Space Agency’s Galileo global navigation satellite system and compliment current services with the addition of new civil and military signals.

This is the first of nine competitive launch services planned in the FY 2016 President’s Budget Request under the current Phase 1A procurement strategy, which covers awards with FY 2015-2018 funding. The next solicitation for launch services will be for a second GPS III satellite.

The Phase 1A procurement strategy reintroduces competition for national security space launch services. Under the Phase 1 strategy, United Launch Alliance (ULA) was the only certified launch provider. In 2013, ULA was awarded a sole-source contract for launch services as part of an Air Force “block buy” of 36 rocket cores that resulted in significant savings for the government through FY 2017.