In this 2020 photo, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

In this 2020 photo, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rocket Lab won’t be ready to launch its new rocket by year’s end, documents suggest

This likely means a delay for the Pentagon’s effort to boost competition for rocket launches.

Despite its promises, Rocket Lab won’t be ready to launch its new medium-lift vehicle by year’s end, documents suggest. 

And that means that no new rocket startups will be able to handle a special pool of Space Force satellite launches that the Pentagon had hoped would jumpstart a new era of competition—at least not yet.

Last year, the Space Force decided to split a set of upcoming launches—a set called National Space Security Launch Phase 3—into two groups for bidding. “Lane 1” contained medium-lift launches that might be handled by newer rockets, while “Lane 2” held more challenging launches. The idea was to help emerging companies, like Rocket Lab, compete against SpaceX and other established launch providers. 

In order to qualify for this year’s awards, companies were required to have a credible path to first flight by Dec. 15, according to the Air Force’s request for proposals

Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, and ABL Space Systems—three of the newcomers that Space Force had hoped to attract to the Lane 1 launches—did not bid on the work, company officials said. 

Rocket Lab officials declined to say whether they had bid.

The Long Beach, California-based company is completing work on Neutron, a reusable medium-lift vehicle designed to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Earlier this month, CFO Adam Spice told investors that the company aims to launch the first Neutron by December.

“The target is to sort of launch by about year end?” a moderator asked at TD Cowen’s annual aerospace & defense conference on Feb. 14.

“Yep. The goal is to have an integrated Neutron on the pad by the end of this year,” Spice responded.

The following week, he seemed to concede that this was an aggressive schedule. If the first Neutron rocket arrives on the pad by year’s end, it will be an “unbelievable accomplishment” compared to other vehicles, Spice said Feb. 21 at Citi's 2024 Global Industrial Tech and Mobility Conference.

“‘Getting it to the pad’ could be ‘getting to the pad and launching’ or ‘getting the pad and then launching shortly thereafter’,” he said. “With a rocket program, you can have one day that can either confirm that you’re absolutely on track and maybe even ahead of schedule, or it could be disastrous and can set you back quite a ways. That’s all, again, part of the excitement that allows you to not sleep well.”

But public documents indicate that the launch pad all but certainly won’t be ready by year’s end. 

Rocket Lab started “groundworks” for its Neutron facility at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, in mid-2023, a company spokesperson said.

The launch pad itself is being built by contractors for the Virginia Spaceport Authority, a state government agency. Work on the pad’s foundations and utility infrastructure is slated for completion around Sept. 30, according to a request for proposals issued last year.

Earlier this month, the space agency issued an RFP for another portion of the work: building the launch equipment vaults. The anticipated completion date is Nov. 29.

That would leave Rocket Lab little more than two weeks to move all the launch equipment they need for Neutron into these vaults—and also the rocket onto the pad—if they were to meet Lane 1’s Dec. 15 deadline. 

That kind of work generally takes much longer. For instance, Relativity started building its pad for the Terran R rocket last year at Cape Canaveral, Florida, but won’t start launching until 2026. And it took Blue Origin years to finish their launch site at Cape Canaveral for its New Glenn rocket, which is expected to launch this year. The company broke ground on Launch Complex 36 in 2016 and completed the site in 2021.

Asked about the pad outfitting schedule, a company spokesperson said Rocket Lab has “deep experience building launch infrastructure on tight timelines” and is building elements in parallel to “streamline” construction. 

“We support the U.S. Space Force strategy for NSSL Lane 1 to on-ramp new capability provided by the commercial launch market, while investing in mission-specific requirements in Lane 2. Rocket Lab will continue to support U.S. space launch with the Neutron launch vehicle, as we have with Electron and HASTE,” the spokesperson said.

(Rocket Lab calls its nascent pad Launch Complex 3, or LC-3, while it is called Pad 0D by Virginia Spaceport Authority, itself formerly known as Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority.) 

SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin all bid on the Lane 1 contracts, a congressional staffer told Defense One. There’s nothing that bars these companies from competing for launches intended for new providers—and they’re currently the only companies that can do the job. 

While there’s been pressure from Capitol Hill to bring more entrants into the launch industry and widen the NSSL program, some congressional members are concerned about the readiness of companies that have placed a bid in Lane 1. 

“Launch service providers bidding to participate in NSSL Phase 3 Lane 1 are misrepresenting their readiness to the Space Force—who may be incentivized to allow them to on-ramp to satisfy pressure from the committee,” according to an internal congressional memo reviewed by Defense One.

Space Systems Command, which runs the NSSL program, declined to comment, citing the ongoing bid process.  

Last year, Space Force officials said that if new companies can’t handle launches in year one, the Pentagon still can rely on SpaceX and ULA.

“If they won't be able to fall in on year one, we know we have two solid providers in Lane 2 that can bid in Lane 1. When they're able to execute and when they've got their commercial bid in place, they can on-ramp to the [indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity] contract at that point,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, who previously ran the National Space Security Launch program at Space Systems Command.