The Defense Department picks three companies to develop rockets for national security launches
The US Air Force has awarded three aerospace companies with a combined $2 billion in contracts to develop rockets capable of sending national security satellites into orbit for the US government: the United Launch Alliance, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. However, SpaceX — a current launch provider for the Defense Department — was not on the list.
The awards are part of the DOD’s coveted Launch Service Agreement, or LSA. The goal of the program is to aid the development of commercial rockets and ensure that the US government has constant access to space for its national security payloads. The Defense Department says it will eventually select two of the awardees to be official launch providers for the US government, with launches starting no earlier than 2020.
Through 2024, the United Launch Alliance will receive $967 million to develop its upcoming rocket called the Vulcan, which will build on the capabilities of the company’s current rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, originally called Orbital ATK, is receiving $791.6 million to create a new rocket called the OmegA launch system. Blue Origin will take home $500 million to aid in the development of its future New Glenn rocket, a reusable orbital vehicle designed to land back on Earth after launch. Each company will receive $109 million of their rewards for fiscal year 2018.
With that money, Blue Origin says it will also look to build a new launch site out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for the New Glenn. Blue Origin plans to also launch the future rocket out of a former NASA site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, called Launch Complex 36. But now the company will have two sites on either coast that the rocket can take off from.
The LSA program was created as a way for the Defense Department to stop relying on Russian rocket technology. For the last decade, many national security payloads have flown to space on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket, which is powered by Russian RD-180 engines. But ever since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, the Defense Department has been trying to phase out use of the RD-180. The LSA program is meant to end the US government’s reliance on the engine and create new systems made by American manufacturers.
“Our launch program is a great example of how we are fielding tomorrow’s Air Force faster and smarter,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in a statement. “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.”
While SpaceX is not on this list, that doesn’t mean the company will no longer be able to launch satellites for the Department of Defense. Rather, it means that SpaceX won’t get US military funding for its projects under development, such as the giant BFR rocket that SpaceX hopes to send around the Moon and to Mars. SpaceX is still certified to launch national security payloads with its Falcon 9 rocket, and the company is hoping to get certification for its new Falcon Heavy vehicle when it launches a test mission for the US Air Force next year.