Main Engine Cut Off

Air Force Awards EELV Phase-1A-6 Contracts

Big news from the Air Force, with 3 launch contracts going to each provider for the 2021–22 timeframe:

United Launch Services, Centennial, Colorado, has been awarded a $441,761,778 firm-fixed-price contract, for launch services to deliver the SILENTBARKER, SBIRS GEO-5, and SBIRS GEO-6 missions to their intended orbits.  This launch service contract will include launch vehicle production, mission integration, mission launch operations/spaceflight worthiness, and mission unique activities for SILENTBARKER and SBIRS GEO-5, with an option for an additional SBIRS GEO-6 launch service. … Fiscal 2018 and 2019 space procurement funds in the amount of $308,550,970 will be obligated at the time of award.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Hawthorne, California, has been awarded a $297,000,000 firm-fixed-price contract, for launch services to deliver the NROL-87, NROL-85, and AFSPC-44 missions to their intended orbits.

First some thoughts on the price assumptions we can make, before I dive into some general thoughts.


For ULA, the SBIRS GEO-5 and -6 flights are likely on Atlas V 411. The first three SBIRS GEO launches were on 401, but the Air Force took the option of using a 411 last year for improved performance, and I expect the same here.

Given that the GEO-6 contract is an option, the funds are not obligated yet, so we can do some math with the numbers given and determine that an Atlas V 411 flight for the Air Force is $133 million. SILENTBARKER is likely on an Atlas V 541 (or even 551) and is the remaining $175 million.

On the SpaceX side, the best bet we can make is that AFSPC-44 is a Falcon Heavy flight, and the two NRO missions are on Falcon 9. Strangely enough, in SpaceX’s statement on the awards, they didn’t list AFSPC-44 in the Falcon Heavy manifest, but I’m assuming that was a case of a bad cut-and-paste job of boilerplate copy that hadn’t been updated yet, since Falcon 9 would likely not be able to fly that mission.

All that said, based on recent Falcon 9 government contracts, we can assume about $90 million per flight, which leaves the Falcon Heavy flight at about $117 million.

General Thoughts

Overall, this round wasn’t too surprising, and that has to be music to SpaceX’s ears.

On the ULA side, Atlas V has flown 4 SBIRS GEO missions already, so going that way for -5 and -6 is not surprising and is a good idea.

On the SpaceX side, the fact that they can lock up two NRO flights and a direct-to-GEO Air Force flight with a good price margin between themselves and ULA is a great sign for their future manifest. The fact that Falcon Heavy has a growing manifest and nearly half of it is filled with Air Force missions is major validation. The fact that there is little outrage when they’re awarded missions like these speaks volumes to their track record of late.

Much as we all think of SpaceX as a scrappy startup, they’re an established launch provider now, and are heading into the phase where they play defense against new entrants.