The Air Force on Wednesday released the request for proposals (RFP) for its Global Positioning System III-3 (GPS III-3) launch scheduled for February 2019.

This launch competition is important because the Air Force did not have true competition for its last launch contract award. The last one, in April for GPS III-2, featured only one bidder: Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). United Launch Alliance (ULA) declined to bid for the contract, citing a variety of reasons, including not having an appropriate accounting system in place and the RFP’s lowest price technically acceptable (LPTA) structure (Defense Daily, Nov. 17). The Air Force said Wednesday in a statement that the GPS III-3 RFP would evaluate proposals on a best value basis with bids due Sept. 19.

The Falcon 9 first stage lands after SpaceX's CRS-9 launch toward ISS. Photo: SpaceX.
The Falcon 9 first stage lands after SpaceX’s CRS-9 launch toward ISS. Photo: SpaceX.

Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) chief Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said in a statement that launch system certification is a key element for this solicitation. Before contract award, the contracting officer will verify that the offeror has a certified launch system as part of a responsibility determination resulting in a high technical bar. The Air Force did not respond an interview request.

Contract award is expected between October and December, according to AFSMC. Likely bidders include SpaceX, ULA and possibly Orbital ATK [OA], which is developing its own Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-capable rocket. SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined comment for this story. Orbital ATK did not respond to a request for comment.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye, while not declaring her company’s intentions, said a best value launch service competition with evaluation of mission success and assurance and past performance, including demonstrated schedule reliability, is appropriate and needed for this competition.

Critical certification assessments the Air Force will make to ensure bidders can meet government requirements include: flight margin verification, flight hardware and software qualification, compliance with orbital insertion accuracy, design and mission reliability and compliance with standard interface specification. Several unique subfactors include: orbital accuracy, mass to orbit, launch concept of operations and risk mitigation plans. Past performance is embedded within the orbital accuracy and mass to orbit subfactors.

ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA]. Click here to view the model contract for the GPS III-3 mission.