The next round of US military launch contracts under the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 program will be awarded next year. The NSSL Phase 2 contract in 2020 went to United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX for their Vulcan and Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. Phase 3 contracts (for up to 40 missions) will probably also be awarded to ULA and SpaceX for these same rockets, although there are some lawmakers in Congress who would prefer there to be more launch service providers competing for medium and heavy US military payloads. One of these lawmakers, Congressman Adam Smith of Washington, would like there to be a better opportunity for Blue Origin’s proposed New Glenn heavy-lift rocket under Phase 3. Makes sense since the company is based in Smith’s home state. The problem is that New Glenn hasn’t even flown a mission yet. The rocket, which was supposed to have flown its maiden mission in 2020, continues to be under development and isn’t expected to launch for the first time until next year, at the earliest. I know, I know… Vulcan has yet to fly but still managed to win a share of the Phase 2 contracts. Not fair, right? Yes, but Vulcan is not an entirely new rocket and ULA has an extremely long track record and an established relationship with the US Air Force. The biggest thing going for New Glenn is Jeff Bezos and his very deep pockets. The best chance New Glenn has of besting Vulcan on Phase 2 is if Vulcan’s maiden launch this summer doesn’t go according to plan. It’s assumed that SpaceX and its Falcon fleet will take one of the two Phase 3 awards. Count on it. But Vulcan, which (interestingly enough) relies on Blue Origin’s innovative BE-4 liquid methane fueled engines, still remains a question mark. It is two years behind schedule. As I’ve said many times before, all these new launch vehicles (both big and small) under development may be irrelevant anyways if SpaceX’s massive, fully reusable Starship rocket (also known as the Big Falcon Rocket or BFR) comes to fruition in the next couple of years. The post-Starship world will look a lot different than it does today. Starship should soon receive a launch license from the FAA for its first maiden launch in April or May.
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