Is the U.S. National Security Space “Launch Market” only big enough for two launch providers?

In October 2018, the US Air Force selected four companies (Blue Origin, Northrop, SpaceX, ULA) to compete for the newly established National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program that replaces the 1990s vintage EELV program. The Air Force has subsequently confirmed that it will only select two launch providers for this program, despite protests that the program should remain open to additional competitors. Last week, ULA’s Tory Bruno noted that the NSSL ‘launch market’ could only support two launch providers.

At the risk of being pedantic and all respect to Mr. Bruno, let’s make it clear that anything to do with National Security is not a “market.” National security is (basically) a buyer, not a market, and it is certainly not a “free” market, driven by market forces of supply and demand. Said differently, a free market is ordinarily a place of choice, where buyers can go in, buy what they need, and leave.

A consumer would rightfully be outraged if he/she were forced to purchase ears of frozen Iowa corn for $1.00, or frozen Illinois corn for $2.00 – all the while knowing that fresh Nebraska corn is available to their (non-restricted) fellow shoppers for something less than $1.00.

Sure, a rocket is not an ear of corn. But there’s a pretty well agreed-upon definition of markets—and National Security Space Launch (NSSL) does not fit that definition. As such, we struggle with the idea that the “foreseeable national security launch market is only big enough to support two launch service providers, not three,” as recently stated by United Launch Alliance.

National Security Space Launch knows that ULA (“frozen Illinois corn”) is full of all the nutritional value necessary for healthy national space security growth. It’s a heritage product, with some Russian roots that some find attractive.

Meanwhile, SpaceX (“Iowa corn”) also has that same nutritional value, with an independent flavor at less than half the cost. And because it is available not just to National Security Space Launch, but rather to any customer (NSSL, commercial, or otherwise), it does not require the full support of NSSL to thrive or grow. It is truly a player in the global launch market.

What would happen if NSSL could enter the market and choose from ANY type of product, whether from ULA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, or other? What if it could get fresh solutions, instead of only frozen ones?

It is a refreshing possibility to consider. Though, since it’s NSSL, for the foreseeable future, it will still procure from ULA, keeping that provider afloat, because it views that option as being important to keep alive.

So yes, two types of corn are not a market—a market would be all ears.