A Blue Origin New Shepard rocket launches from Launch Site One in West Texas north of Van Horn on March 31, 2022.

A Blue Origin New Shepard rocket launches from Launch Site One in West Texas north of Van Horn on March 31, 2022. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Blue Origin cleared to bid on national-security launches

But Bezos-owned rocket firm is the only newcomer in a $5.6B contract pool that had been intended to foster competition.

The Pentagon has picked three companies—Blue Origin, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance—for its new satellite launch competition that was built to usher new entrants into the market. 

The companies will compete for $5.6 billion worth of contracts over the next five years under “Lane 1” of the National Security Space Launch Phase 3 program, the Pentagon announced on Thursday. At least 30 missions will be awarded from fiscal 2025 to 2029, Space Systems Command has said.

This marks a big win for Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which has yet to fly a national security mission. The company pitched its heavy-lift rocket New Glenn, which is set to fly for the first time in September. 

Last year, the Space Force announced it would split NSSL into two groups for bidding: “Lane 1,” which includes more risk-tolerant missions that might be handled by newer rockets, and “Lane 2,” which held more challenging launches. The idea was to help emerging companies compete against established launch providers.

But newer companies, such as Rocket Lab, weren’t ready for this first tranche. In order to qualify for this year’s awards, companies had to have a credible path to first flight by the year’s end. 

The program fielded seven bids, according to SSC, but only three met the criteria. Emerging launch providers, like Relativity Space, Firefly Aerospace, and ABL Space Systems, will be permitted to join the Lane 1 contract starting next year—if they are ready, according to SSC.

“As we anticipated, the pool of awardees is small this year because many companies are still maturing their launch capabilities. Our strategy accounted for this by allowing on-ramp opportunities every year, and we expect increasing competition and diversity as new providers and systems complete development,” Brig. Gen. Kristin Panzenhagen, program executive officer for Assured Access to Space, said in a statement.  

As the only new provider, Blue Origin will get $5 million to conduct an “initial capabilities assessment.” The established giants, Space X and ULA will get $1.5 million each, according to SSC. 

“As the Space Force continues to streamline processes and increase resiliency, the NSSL Phase 3 Launch Service Procurement contracts provide the opportunity to include the most current domestic commercial innovation into our launch program as soon as it becomes available,” said Frank Calvelli, the Pentagon’s space acquisition czar. “Today marks the beginning of this innovative, dual-lane approach to launch service acquisition, whereby Lane 1 serves our commercial-like missions that can accept more risk and Lane 2 provides our traditional, full mission assurance for the most stressing heavy-lift launches of our most risk-averse missions.” 

The Pentagon plans to pick the companies for Lane 2 later this fall, according to SSC.