By: Christian Davenport
The Air Force on Wednesday awarded more than $2 billion in combined contracts to three companies to develop rockets capable of launching national security satellites.
The contracts, part of an effort to increase competition, went to the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin. For nearly a decade, ULA had a monopoly on Pentagon launches until it was challenged by SpaceX, which eventually was granted certification and has been competing against ULA. SpaceX was not listed among the award recipients.
With these contract awards, the Pentagon will be looking to help two more suppliers enter the market.
ULA was awarded nearly $1 billion for its new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur. Unlike the Atlas V rocket that the company currently uses, the new rocket will use engines made in the United States. The Atlas V uses RD-180 engines made in Russia.
Northrop Grumman, which recently acquired Orbital ATK, will receive nearly $800 million for its Omega launch system.
Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, was awarded $500 million for its New Glenn rocket. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The award is the first major government contract for the company, which has for years relied almost exclusively on Bezos’s fortune. The company also recently announced that it would sell its BE-4 engine to ULA, another significant revenue stream.
In a statement, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said that the contract “allows us to further expand our launch manifest beyond our existing commercial customers to fly vital national security space missions. The funding provided through this agreement will be used to tailor our launch vehicle and associated facilities for national security space needs.”
The awards come as the Trump administration is pushing a new branch of the military known as the Space Force. While it remains to be seen if Congress would approve a new bureaucracy in the Pentagon, the measure has elevated the concerns over national security space issues.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the program “is a great example of how we are fielding tomorrow’s Air Force faster and smarter. We’re making the most of the authorities Congress gave us and we will no longer be reliant on the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine.”