USAF Issues RFP for New Launch Vehicles

The U.S. Air Force issued a request for proposals (RFP) last Thursday for a new launch vehicle to handle national security space (NSS) requirements.

“The goal of the EELV acquisition strategy is to leverage commercial launch solutions in order to have at least two domestic, commercial launch service providers that also meet NSS requirements, including the launch of the heaviest and most complex payloads,” the proposal states.

“The Launch Service Agreements (LSAs) facilitate development of at least three EELV Launch System prototypes as early as possible, allowing those launch systems to mature prior to a future selection of two NSS launch service providers for Phase 2 launch service procurements, starting in FY20,” the proposal adds.

Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Air Force want to eliminate the service’s dependence upon Russia’s RD-180 engine, which powers the first stage of ULA’s Atlas V booster. The majority of Atlas V flights carry defense payloads, in addition to civilian government and commercial satellites.

The RFP is a follow-on to propulsion development contracts awarded by the Air Force to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Orbital ATK, SpaceX and ULA. Each propulsion systems was part of “a planned or ongoing industry EELV-class launch system upgrade or development,” the RFP stated.

ULA is developing a new booster called Vulcan to replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets. The company plans to choose between Aerojet Rocketdyne and Blue Origin engines to power the first stage.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently announced plans for his BFR booster that could serve the International Space Station, carry cargoes to the moon and Mars, and make suborbital passenger trips between major cities on Earth. The company has been developing advanced Raptor engines for the new rocket.

Orbital ATK also is working on its Next Generation Launcher (NGL), which makes use of existing solid rocket motor technology. The booster will be capable of carying payloads weighing 5,500 to 8,500 kg (12,125 — 18,739 lbs) to geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) and 5,250 to 7,000 kg (11,574 — 15,432 lbs) geostationary equatorial orbit (GEO) from East and West coast launch facilities.

  • This is one of those “boring but important” things in space development. Per the DoD definitions above, medium lift is now 15 klb to LEO and 5 klb in GEO. But heavy lift? WOW! 14.5 klb in GEO and 37.5 klb to polar!?! What even weighs that much?!?!

    While the general the general outcome is assured, the devil will be in the details: Falcon Heavy and Vulcan are almost assured, but which engines on Vulcan? Will SpaceX do something unexpected with Falcon Heavy?

    The next part is the REALLY interesting one: is there a third production contract? Northrup Orbital Grumman ATK? Blue Origin’s Bob Smith just said they might go after more gov’t contracts. Does that mean this RFP? Are they even ready?

  • passinglurker

    “But heavy lift? WOW! 14.5 klb in GEO and 37.5 klb to polar!?! What even weighs that much?!?!”

    Maybe some one is trying to bring back the rods from God again? (Rolls eyes)

  • I agree with the rods from God sentiment. But the idea that DoD could effectively launch Salyut or MOL directly into polar orbit is kinda impressive.

  • passinglurker

    More realistically maybe they want to launch sats in bulk? Observation satellites aren’t exactly one offs.

  • windbourne

    Most of this is capable of being handled by SX, and in a couple of year, BO and ULA.
    It is really too bad that they do not put out an RFP for super heavy lift vehicles and then help fund them with a COTS approach.

  • I could see that with commercial comsats or maybe even GPS birds (but they don’t go to polar orbits…). But, the intelligence satellites (signals, imagining, etc.) don’t exactly fly off the production line – and rarely share an orbit. Nor can I see the DoD be willing to risk launching 2 of those pricey birds at once, part of the reason to split up launches is to spread out the risk.


  • passinglurker

    Maybe its just an arbitrary niche for Vulcan and NGL? Falcon heavy and New glenn only have east coast launchpads that have to dogleg to reach polar inclinations.

  • Rebel44

    Falcon Heavy will be able to launch from VAFB (pad upgrades for FH are scheduled after SpaceX finishes fixing SLC-40 and upgrade of LC-39A) so polar orbits shouldnt be a problem.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    That is IF Musk doesn’t give up on FH to switch focus to BFR. And that would require another set of pad upgrades at VAFB.