The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) plans to use launch services outside of its usual National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program when needed to launch missions on tight schedules or deploy lower-cost research payloads, SpaceNews reported Friday.
The NRO develops and operates the U.S. government’s spy satellites and typically uses the U.S. Space Force run NSSL program to get satellites into orbit. Although the NRO will use commercial contracts for some missions, it will also help fund technical support and mission assurance activities for NSSL.
Some congressional lawmakers have raised concerns that procuring launch services outside the NSSL program with commercial contracts makes the NSSL program more expensive. Regardless, the NRO has launched satellites on SpaceX and Rocket Lab rockets under such commercial contracts.
The Space Force awarded five-year contracts to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX to launch Department of Defense and intelligence agency satellites last year. The companies compete for single missions on a yearly basis. If launch providers secure commercial contracts outside of the NSSL, they often offer more competitive prices for NSSL missions.
Although the government benefits if providers offer lower prices, fewer missions might make the NSSL program less efficient. However, the number of non-NSSL launches the NRO has used are unlikely to have a consequential effect.
An NRO spokesman stated that the agency is a partner of the Space Force in the NSSL program but gave several factors as to why alternative launch options will be considered in the future. Such factors include satellite risk tolerance, required launch dates, available launch vehicles and cost.
Col. Robert Bongiovi, head of the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center launch enterprise, said NSSL Phase 2 was “constructed to provide affordable and innovative access to space.”As to why agencies pursue other options to launch their satellites, “you have to talk to those two agencies on why they chose different approaches,” Bongiovi started in November during a Mitchell Institute event.