A Falcon 9 launch in March, 2015. (credit: SpaceX)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has declined to bid on the launch of a next-generation GPS satellite, opening the way for SpaceX to launch its very first national safety payload later this decade. ULA’s choice marks the most recent (apparently triumphant) skirmish in a contentious, high stakes battle by the upstart SpaceX to win contracts to launch Pentagon satellites.

The Air Force asked for bids to launch a GPS 3 satellite, which has improved signal accuracy and anti-jamming capabilities, in 2018. Monday was the deadline to submit bids. This was the initial military contract for a launch because the Air Force certified SpaceX for satellite launches in Might, a move that allowed it to compete with ULA.

A joint venture amongst Lockheed Martin and Boeing, ULA has had a sterling record with its Atlas five rocket, with much more than 100 productive launches. However, the rocket relies on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine for its thrust, and given the ongoing tensions between the United States and Ukraine, the US Congress passed a law final year banning the use of these engines beginning in 2019.

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