Rocket Lab CEO on Reshaping National Security Space Launch Contracts
Peter Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab, openly acknowledges his company’s significant role in reshaping the U.S. government’s approach to purchasing launch services. Beck expresses his satisfaction with the outcome of the recent draft solicitation for the next round of national security space launch contracts, stating, “We’re very happy with the outcome.” The new National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 3 procurement process allows emerging players to compete head-to-head against incumbents, a change that Rocket Lab has been promoting.
The Space Systems Command recently released two draft requests for proposals for NSSL Phase 3, which will allow commercial companies such as Rocket Lab, Relativity Space, and Blue Origin to compete. The dual-lane approach is designed to enable competition for both lower-end launch missions and the most demanding heavy-lift launches currently being flown by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. Lane 1, which is the sweet spot for Rocket Lab’s Neutron, is intended for medium-sized reusable launch vehicles for commercial mega-constellation deployments, while Lane 2 is for the most challenging heavy-lift launches.
Rocket Lab designed the Neutron with NSSL in mind, and the company plans to begin flying it in late 2024. At least 30 missions are projected for Lane 1 from fiscal years 2025 to 2034, and these will be more risk-tolerant and fly to lower orbits. Beck expects Rocket Lab to compete against new players like Relativity Space and Blue Origin, as well as Phase 2 incumbents ULA and SpaceX. The Space Force will allow certified heavy-lift launch vehicles eligible for Lane 2 to also compete for Lane 1 missions.
Beck hopes that the government will take other factors into account when selecting providers, not just the price. A key requirement for Lane 1 competitors is to have accomplished a successful mission to orbit, a condition that Rocket Lab also lobbied for, to avoid a contract mechanism where paper rockets could compete.
Rocket Lab is investing around $250 million in the development of the Neutron, with the Space Force contributing $24 million to help develop the upper stage. Rocket Lab is already prototyping first-stage tanks in undisclosed locations. Development work is taking place in various locations, including Wallops, Virginia, NASA’s Stennis Center in Mississippi, Long Beach, California, and New Zealand.
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Beck notes that Rocket Lab starts working on the rocket and then adds the factory as required, unlike the old aerospace industry, which would build a large factory and then begin working on the rocket. Rocket Lab is currently “pushing some dirt” on Neutron’s future launch pad at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, where the company recently started launching its small Electron rocket. Launching from Wallops will allow Neutron to compete for NSSL missions to sun-synchronous orbits and mid-inclination, which would typically launch from Vandenberg, California. “Lane 1 is pad agnostic, which we’re pleased to see as well.”
Beck acknowledges that developing a new rocket is a challenging task, but he believes Rocket Lab can compete against Falcon 9. Rocket Lab’s goal is to foster and grow a wider industrial base.
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