Rocket Lab is “very pleased” with Space Force’s plan to procure launch services

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab Chief Executive Peter Beck has spoken candidly about his company’s role in transforming the U.S. government’s approach to purchasing launch services.

“We are very pleased with the result,” says Beck of the recent draft tender for the next round of national security treaties for space launches.

Unlike the previous National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 acquisition, future Phase 3 contracts will allow emerging players to compete against incumbents.

“We certainly campaigned for that,” says Beck SpaceNews.

Space Systems Command released two draft proposals for NSSL Phase 3 last month. The two-track approach aims to allow commercial companies like Rocket Lab and others to compete. Lane 1 is for low-end launch missions and Lane 2 for the most demanding heavy lift launches currently flown by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

Beck says Lane 1 is “the sweet spot” for Rocket Lab’s Neutron, a new mid-size reusable launch vehicle the company plans to launch in late 2024 and be able to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for commercial deployments in megaconstellations . The vehicle was also developed with NSSL in mind.

At least 30 missions are planned for Lane 1 from fiscal years 2025 to 2034. These would be “more risk tolerant,” the Space Force said, and fly in lower orbits.

“We were obviously committed to making this change and felt it would be a good approach,” says Beck. “It’s always good when your customer is part of the development program and informs you about their needs.”

Beck expects Rocket Lab not only to compete against new players like Relativity Space and Blue Origin, but also against established Phase 2 companies ULA and SpaceX. The Space Force will allow certified heavy lift launchers approved for Lane 2 to also participate in Lane 1 missions.

It’s conceivable that SpaceX could outperform Lane 1’s competitors with aggressive pricing, but Beck hopes the government will consider other factors when choosing vendors.

“Price is important, but I think in the spirit of this whole concept of making sure there’s more than just two suppliers, I think the government will probably look at that as a strategic decision on an industrial basis,” says Beck. “If you want to nurture and expand a broader industrial base, you may need to make some decisions that aren’t based solely on price.”

No “paper rockets”

A key requirement for Lane 1’s competitors is to have completed a successful mission to orbit, something Rocket Lab also pushed for.

“We were very happy to see that there,” says Beck. “We didn’t want to see a contract mechanism where paper rockets could compete.”

He notes that some DoD and NASA small-launch contract vehicles allow companies that don’t have actual rockets to bid, “and there’s no difference between a paper rocket and a real rocket … You see people putting together proposals that.” look very convincing on paper, but the rocket doesn’t really exist.”

For years, “there was always a sense of frustration that we have to compete against these unproven paper rockets. So we are very happy to see that we don’t have to do that at this next NSSL.”

Developing a rocket is ‘painful’

Rocket Lab is investing approximately $250 million in the development of Neutron. The Space Force is committing $24 million to help develop the upper stage.

According to Beck, prototypes of first-stage tanks are already being made in undisclosed locations. Development work takes place in Wallops, Virginia; at NASA’s Stennis Center in Mississippi; in Long Beach, California; in New Zealand and other places.

“The old aerospace industry built a huge factory and then started working on the rocket,” he says. “We start work on the missile and then add the factory as needed, hence the reason we have some tanks built in some areas and some tanks in others.”

Rocket Lab is “pushing some dirt” on Neutron’s future launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, where the company recently began launching its small electron rocket.

The Wallops launch will allow Neutron to compete for NSSL missions to sun-synchronous orbits and medium inclination, which would normally be launched from Vandenberg, California, he adds. “Lane 1 is pad-agnostic, which also makes us happy.”

“Building a new rocket is a very painful exercise,” says Beck. “I wouldn’t have bothered to go down this path if we didn’t think we could be competitive against Falcon 9.”

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