Featured Image Source: SpaceX
The United States Pentagon announced on August 7, the Department of the U.S. Air Force selected SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) to receive an award contract valued at $653 million to conduct national security missions through the fiscal year 2022 for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement. The two companies won over other American aerospace companies, including Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman.
Out of the award, SpaceX received $316 million for one Phase 2 mission, and United Launch Alliance received a $337 million contract for two Phase 2 missions. Collectively, both companies will launch as many as 34 national security launches, that will take place sometime between 2022 and 2027. According to the Pentagon, out of the estimated 34 fixed-priced missions SpaceX will get 40% and United Launch Alliance will get 60%.
“Maintaining a competitive launch market, servicing both government and commercial customers, is how we encourage continued innovation on assured access to space,” the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics Will Roper told reporters.
The U.S. is investing more on American spacecraft. SpaceX already has a reliable pair of rockets, the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets which are capable of launching payload to orbit and return from space. The rockets land on autonomous drone ships in order to be refurbished and reused.
To participate in the U.S. Air Force's National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, a requirement is to have the capacity to do a vertical payload integration at their launch site. SpaceX President, Gwynne Shotwell, said earlier this year – “We bid to meet every requirement. The only modifications we need are an extended fairing on the Falcon Heavy, and we are going to have to build a vertical integration capability. But we are basically flying the rockets that they need.”
To meet the contract requirements, SpaceX plans to build a new gantry at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A gantry is the massive tower structure that encloses the rocket in a safe position before liftoff. Currently, SpaceX uses a horizontal fixture to take rockets to the launch pad and the payload is inserted while the rocket lies horizontally in the hangar. The payload in the Phase 2 missions, could involve top-secret military satellites that will require vertical accommodation when inserting them inside the fairing of their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. SpaceX’s gantry tower will be able to move the rockets vertically to Launch Pad 39A, as well as provide a safe environment for SpaceX crews to insert very large satellites inside the rocket's fairing vertically. Engineers will likely continue to prepare rockets horizontally inside the hangar, but whenever payload requires a vertical insertion, the rocket will be transported to the vertical gantry where a crew will utilize cranes to reach the very top to insert it inside the fairing.
SpaceX usually has rockets horizontally inside hangars near the company’s launch pads to protect them, the vertical gantry they plan to build will feature a full enclosure to shield their spacecraft from storms and high winds, like hurricanes coming from Florida's coastline. The gantry will be able to guard some of the U.S government’s most expensive satellites, and feature the capability of moving away from the rocket before each launch. Shotwell described the gantry to reporters –“It comes up and kind of circles around. It’s got to be out there during a Category 5 hurricane, fully enclosed. The whole rocket has to be encapsulated. It’s got huge hurricane clamps on it that clamp it to the ground,” she said.
A requirement for United Launch Alliance is to finish the development of its Vulcan rocket to replace its old Delta and Atlas rocket which relies on engines bought from Russia. – “Today’s awards mark a new epoch of space launch that will finally transition the Department of Defense off Russian RD-180 engines,” Roper added. The U.S. Pentagon wants to end reliance on the Russian RD-180 engines, a legislative order says the military will not be allowed to book flights aboard ULA’s Atlas V rocket with Russian engines by December 2022.