WASHINGTON — The Space Force issued four awards worth a combined $88 million as an investment in next-generation rocket capabilities, Space Systems Command announced Sept. 24.

The contracts were awarded as part of the National Security Space Launch program, which secures heavy launches for Department of Defense and intelligence community payloads. Only two companies — SpaceX and United Launch Alliance — were awarded contracts as part of Phase 2, which covers an expected 34 launches over a five-year period from 2022 to 2027. That competition was designed in response to a congressional mandate to eliminate the use of Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines.

Issued through the Space Enterprise Consortium, a contract vehicle used by the Space Force for rapid prototyping and experimentation, the awards are intended to expand launch capabilities through rocket engine testing and upper stage resiliency enhancements.

SpaceX was awarded $14.5 million for multiple efforts, including rapid throttling and restart testing for the Raptor engine that is used for the company’s Starship launch vehicle, liquid methane specification development and testing, and combustion stability analysis and testing. ULA will receive $24.4 million to further uplink command and control for the Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is expected to fly for the first time in 2022 and was built for the NSSL Phase 2 competition.

In addition, Rocket Lab will receive $24.4 million for upper stage development of the Neutron rocket it is building. And Blue Origin, who lost out to ULA and SpaceX in the Phase 2 competition, was issued $24.4 million for cryogenic fluid management for stage two of its New Glenn rocket.

While ULA and SpaceX were the winners of the Phase 2 contracts and are already securing NSSL launches, the prototyping awards bring Blue Origin and Rocket Lab into the NSSL program. Space Systems Command is currently developing a strategy for Phase 3 of NSSL, with an open procurement competition expected to be conducted in 2024.

“Our Launch Industry is the envy of the world and we are excited to partner with industry to advance transformational space access capabilities,” said Launch Enterprise Director Col. Rob Bongiovi in a statement. “We have also been very pleased with the exceptional acquisition flexibility and speed provided by SpEC.”

Space Systems Command expects to award more prototype projects in early fiscal 2022, with a focus on orbital transfer and maneuver.

CORRECTION: This article originally listed the wrong SpaceX launch vehicle for the Raptor engine.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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