The U.S. Air Force wants to maintain its options: It awarded a total of $640 million in satellite launch contracts to both SpaceX and the United Launch Alliance (Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s joint space launch venture), with the goal of making sure it has access to at least two options for launching its payloads to space.
SpaceX won a $290 million contract to launch three GPS satellites for the USAF by the end of 2020, the Wall Street Journal reports, and the ULA will receive $351 to launch two space craft from the air defence agency. On a per launch basis, SpaceX’s rockets cost around $70 million less, and that’s also part of why the Air Force went with two providers for this next spate of launches, too.
The report notes that this is part of an ongoing cost reduction effort, which should bode well for SpaceX. The launch startup has also just demonstrated its Falcon Heavy rocket, which could put larger payloads into space and eventually compete more directly with the Atlas V from ULA for different kinds of Air Force contracts. Meanwhile, ULA is moving forward with its efforts to develop a lower-cost rocket and launch option, but that’s likely still a few years away from being viable.
The Pentagon has long had a goal of establishing at least two viable launch providers for missions relating to national security, so that’s a big reason for continuing to play nice on both sides of this private space race. SpaceX has an Air Force launch on the manifest, which is possible pre-validation of the rocket only because it’s an experimental mission, coming up later this year.