The Space Development Agency of the Pentagon is all about cutting expenses and getting the most bang for its buck. When it needed launch services to deliver a set of 28 satellites in late 2022, it seeks competitive bids, and SpaceX was awarded the contract.
That decision angered the office of the United States Space Force, which controls the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) programme and relies on DoD to use its services to keep the programme affordable. The NSSL Phase 2 deployment suppliers are SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, with flights spread 60/40 between these two.
The Space Development Agency (SDA), which is creating a vast constellation of the small satellites in the low Earth orbit, stated last month that it will no longer obtain launches commercially and will instead use the NSSL programme to purchase launch services. NSSL was initially a no-go for SDA Director Derek Tournear since it is much more costly than commercial launches. NSSL clients pay additional administrative costs, mission assurance, and other markups.
According to Tournear, the Space Force consented to reduce some of the additional markups and provide SDA a better price after extensive negotiations. Tournear stated SDA received opposition for planning a commercial launch with the SpaceX Company outside of the NSSL programme during a media briefing at the 36th Space Symposium. SDA maintained that there was a “substantial disparity” between NSSL Phase 2 expenses and commercial pricing, and therefore saving taxpayer money made sense.
As a result, Tournear claimed that the NSSL programme office, part of the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, decided to negotiate a superior deal for SDA. “They worked extremely effectively with us, and we collaborated closely together to find items that were incorporated in those NSSL fees that didn’t absolutely need to be incorporated for our release, and they were able to remove a number of them.”
Tournear said he couldn’t say exactly what costs were cut, but it amounted to “many millions of dollars each launch” less than what NSSL launches would normally cost. “They took away a lot of things that we didn’t need.”
The disparity between what SDA authority would pay for the commercial launches and what NSSL would pay is now “minimal,” according to Tournear. There is a distinction, but it is warranted because it allows NSSL to charter more rockets and negotiates better rates with providers. “Now that the department is buying more rockets under NSSL, they can utilize that to restructure things within the 60/40 split they’re obligated to.”
As an NSSL customer, SDA will work with rocket suppliers and integrators “to ensure that we can connect the spacecraft providers with the launch vehicles,” according to Tournear. “It is something we can surely do,” she said, although she hoped she wouldn’t have to.