SpaceX Receives second GPS Navigation Satellite Launch Contract

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 takes off on a commercial mission – Photo: SpaceX

The U.S. Air Force announced this week it had awarded SpaceX a launch contract for the third GPS III satellite with a targeted launch date in February 2019, marking SpaceX’s second competitively won GPS contract and ending a decade-long monopoly held by United Launch Alliance in the military launch business.

“SpaceX will provide the Government with a total launch solution for the GPS-III satellite, which includes launch vehicle production, mission integration, and launch operations and spaceflight certification,” the Air Force said in a statement. The total contract value is $96.5 million and specifies a launch no later than April 2019.

The inauguration of the next generation of GPS satellites has slipped multiple times in recent years, initially targeting deployment to begin in 2014 but encountering significant delays due to technical challenges. GPS Block III introduces a number of new capabilities such as improved accuracy for precision navigation and timing as well as more resilient anti-jamming features as GPS represents one of the most critical space-based systems for the U.S. military and therefore could become a prime target for space warfare efforts.


The third GPS III launch contract was a direct face-off between United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. ULA received the contract for the first GPS Block III mission as part of a 28-vehicle block buy without having to compete with SpaceX. No bid was submitted by ULA for the GPS III-2 contract due to uncertainty over whether the Russian-built RD-180 engine would be restricted to fly only with non-national security payloads. ULA also cited the company did not have the accounting methods specified in the procurement documents from the Air Force.

First GPS III Flight Vehicle – Photo: Lockheed Martin

SpaceX ended up winning the contract for GPS III-2 for a total value of $82.7 million, representing the company’s first Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) contract after Falcon 9 was qualified to compete for national security missions in May 2015 following a lengthy certification effort.

A deciding factor in the selection of SpaceX for GPS III-3 was the company’s competitive price. “The competitive award of the GPS III Launch Services contract to SpaceX directly supports SMC’s mission of delivering resilient and affordable space capabilities to our Nation,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Air Force program executive officer for Space and SMC commander.

ULA had voiced concerns prior to the procurement of the previous launch contract that the selection is primarily driven by price, favored over other factors such as schedule certainty, reliability and past performance – points that often come up in ULA’s promotional materials and would put Atlas V with its nearly spotless record in a better position. Falcon 9’s price tag is understood to be significantly lower than the launch cost of Atlas V and Delta IV, however, ULA did not disclose its bid for the GPS III-3 contract.

GPS III Production Hall – Photo: Lockheed Martin

SpaceX noted previously that requirements for U.S. Air Force launches add around 30% to the overall Falcon 9 launch cost compared with commercial satellite launches. Standard Falcon 9 launch services are offered for $62 million on SpaceX’s website while the basic Atlas V comes at a launch price of $109 million, not taking into account specific requirements for GPS.

The Air Force said that SpaceX offered the lowest bid in the competition for GPS III-3 while matching the technical and mission requirements of other bidders. Per the contract’s specifications, GPS satellites will ride on brand new Falcon 9 rockets and not fly re-used booster hardware as that would require additional certification work.

ULA and SpaceX are expected to compete for a number national security missions over the coming years as other launch providers do not yet have the capabilities for launching heavy-class missions. It can be expected that ULA and SpaceX will remain the only competitors for what is known as the Phase 1A launch procurement of 14 competitive launches before new vehicles such as Blue Origin’s New Glenn can enter the market to compete for Phase 2 missions starting in 2020.

Photo: SpaceX

SMC plans to put out a request for proposal for a total of seven missions over the coming months, all of which will be looked at on a case-by-case basis to select the launch provider that meets all technical criteria and offers the most competitive price. These missions include more GPS launches, communications satellites, the last additions to the SBIRS missile-warning system and classified National Reconnaissance Office Missions. Some missions will go beyond SpaceX’s current capabilities, requiring the company to introduce the more-powerful Falcon Heavy with a successful demonstration mission before being considered competitive for some of the high-performance missions.

The next mission up for bidding is the Space Test Program (STP) 3 launch that will involve STPSat-6 as primary payload headed to Geosynchronous Orbit to demonstrate a number of experimental payloads including detectors for nuclear detonations, an innovative laser communications system and a series of Department of Defense experiments.

Four more GPS III satellite launches will be awarded under the Phase 1A procurement strategy. At present, the first GPS III launch targets a spring 2018 liftoff atop a Delta IV rocket to be followed in May 2018 by the GPS III-2 launch on Falcon 9.

GPS Block IIIA Satellite – Image: US Air Force

The GPS IIIA satellites are manufactured by Lockheed Martin under a $1.4 billion contract covering the development of the next-generation GPS satellites as well as the first eight IIIA spacecraft to launch. Two more satellites are expected to be ordered from Lockheed Martin before the end of the year.

GPS IIIA is based on Lockheed Martin’s A2100 satellite bus that so far has only been used in Geostationary applications. Unlike the current generation of GPS IIF satellites built by Boeing, the GPS IIIA spacecraft will have an apogee propulsion system and do not require a 3+-hour launch-to-insertion profile directly into an operational orbit over 20,000 Kilometers in altitude. While multi-hour missions are regularly performed by ULA’s Atlas and Delta vehicles, SpaceX has yet to demonstrate such a mission profile.

The next generation of GPS satellites, each weighing in at around 3,700 Kilograms, will introduce a number of advanced systems including a cross-linked command and control architecture that will allow satellites to communicate with each other, enabling the operation of the constellation through a single ground station. The IIIA satellites also introduce a new spot-beam capability for enhanced coverage for military users and improved anti-jam security features will be implemented.