New Glenn vertical on the pad at LC-36. Credits: Blue Origin

Blue Origin, SpaceX, ULA Score New NSSL Phase 3 Contracts

The US Space Force selected three companies to launch government payloads. For the first time, Blue Origin will join others in this prestigious task

The United States Department of Defense just awarded contracts worth up to $5.6 billion for the NSSL Phase 3 Lane 1 procurement program. Under the National Security Space Launch program, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance will launch payloads for the United States Space Force in the 2025-2029 period. While SpaceX and ULA are already part of the program, the addition of Blue Origin represents a major leap forward for Jeff Bezos’ company.


The NSSL Program

The program began in 1994 as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. The aim was to develop vehicles capable of ensuring the launch of military payloads while improving costs and reliability. This led to the creation of the Atlas V and the Delta IV family of rockets, which remained the main launch vehicles for US government payloads for two decades. The program was renamed to NSSL in 2019 to better reflect advancements in rocket reusability and SpaceX’s entry into the program in the mid-2010s.

NROL-91 liftoff. Credits: ULA
Liftoff of NROL-91. The Delta IV Heavy was created as part of the EELV program. Credits: ULA

The NSSL Phase 3 contract is divided into two “lanes”. The second lane is more similar to older contracts, requiring strict certification and ample payload capacity to highly demanding orbits. The USSF expects to award Lane 2 contracts this fall. The first lane aims to further reduce costs and improve launch vehicle redundancy. Thus it allows bidders to compete for less demanding, more risk-tolerant missions, not requiring the same qualifications as Lane 2.


The awards

The three winners will compete for contracts through June 2029, with launches being ordered up to two years in advance. The USSF expects to complete a minimum of 30 missions. The Pentagon did not disclose which rockets will be employed, but stated that seven companies placed bids.

The major novelty is the entry of Blue Origin in the program, which unlike the two other companies has never put into orbit government payloads. In fact, the company’s first orbital launcher, New Glenn, has yet to fly for the first time. Blue Origin has been developing the heavy launcher for more than a decade sharing little information about it. After multiple delays, a mockup has been tested at Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 36 in February. The first launch is currently scheduled for late 2024, carrying NASA’s EscaPADE Mars orbiter mission. This award represents a further confidence boost for the upcoming rocket.


About New Glenn

New Glenn is a partially reusable heavy-lift two-stage rocket. The vehicle will be 98 m tall and capable of delivering 45 tons of payload to LEO and 13 t to GTO. The first stage uses methane and oxygen propellants and is designed to land on a barge for reuse. It will employ 7 BE-4 engines, which have already successfully flown on ULA’s Vulcan in January. The second stage uses hydrogen and oxygen propellants and BE-3U engines. Blue Origin is working on reusing it as well with project Jarvis.

New Glenn's first and second stage mated tocheter for the first time. Credits: Blue Origin
New Glenn’s first and second stages mated together for the first time. Credits: Blue Origin

New Glenn already competed for NSSL Phase 2 in 2020 but was not selected. Now, the upcoming rocket will join the pool of launch vehicles providing the US with redundant, cost-effective access to space.

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Riccardo Dipietro

Riccardo Dipietro

Second-year aerospace engineering student at the Polytechnical School of Turin. Creator and admin of gourmet_space_memes on Instagram

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