Spaceflight Insider

ULA declines bid for next generation GPS launch contract

Atlas V 401 launch of GPS IIF-11

An Atlas V 401 rocket launches GPS IIF-11, the penultimate GPS IIF satellite, for the United States Air Force. Photo Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has chosen not to compete with SpaceX for the first launch of the Air Force’s next-generation GPS satellite in 2018. Florida Today reported that ULA did not submit a bid by Monday’s deadline.

The GPS III launch would have been the first military launch open to competition in almost a decade, with ULA going up against SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rocket won certification earlier this year to compete for certain national security contracts.


An artist’s impression a GPS III satellite in orbit. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

ULA said in a statement that it was unable to compete for the launch due to congressional restrictions on the number of Russian-built RD-180 engines it could purchase for its Atlas V rocket and certain accounting provisions required in the contract.

The situation has left the disposition of the contract somewhat up in the air – as there is no competition. Whether SpaceX will be granted the contract is not known at this time. On Sept. 30, the Air Forced put a Request for Proposal for the GPS III launch services. Bids were due on Nov. 16, and an award is expected in March.

“ULA wants nothing more than to compete, but, unfortunately, we are unable to submit a compliant bid for GPS III-X launch services,” the statement said. “We look forward to working with the Air Force to address the obstacles to ULA’s participation in future launch competitions to enable a full and fair competition.”

The RD-180 has become a bone of contention in space circles after Russia’s military actions in Ukraine in 2014. U.S. sanctions have limited the amount of Russian-made engines that are imported into the U.S.

Since that time, ULA has begun the development and production of its Next-Generation Launch System – more commonly known as “Vulcan”. It hopes to begin testing that rocket by 2018 or 2019.

ULA’s final Atlas V launch of this year will carry Orbital ATK’s Cygnus OA-4 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The launch, which be ULA’s twelfth this year, is scheduled for Dec. 3.

SpaceX is expecting to launch a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 11 Orbcomm satellites sometime in December. This will be the company’s first launch since the catastrophic launch failure of the CRS-7 mission on June 28, 2015.



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

Reader Comments

A quick web search shows that Delta IV has been used before to launch GPS satellites, so this isn’t strictly an Atlas V issue with Russian engines. The lack of a ULA bid for this GPS launch also indicates that ULA intends to follow through on its previous statements that Delta IV will be phased out due to its high costs.

Delta IV has zero chance of price competitive bid for GPS launch mission. Although exact numbers are hard we can expect Delta IV Medium+ to be in the 180M dollar range or more. Not worth the embarrassment and being phased out you mentioned.

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