Three companies to develop rockets for national security launches

A rendering of Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket in flight

A rendering of Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket in flight

The public-private Launch Service Agreements awarded almost $792 million to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which acquired defense and space contractor Orbital ATK in June. The main assembly of the New Glenn launch vehicle will occur in the Blue Origin rocket manufacturing facility in Florida, near Launch Complex 36 which the company leased from Spaceport Florida.

Currently, ULA and SpaceX are the only launch providers for national security payloads.

The public-private partnerships will ensure "the US maintains assured access to space, with at least two domestic launch service providers and without reliance on non-allied rocket propulsion systems". The rocket has been under development since 2014, and ULA expects the first launch of the new rocket to occur no earlier than mid-2020. "Our launch program is a great example of how we are fielding tomorrow's Air Force faster and smarter", said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson. The award to Blue Origin will be for development of the New Glenn Launch System. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems formerly Orbital ATK - will build the OmegA launch system, and ULA is slated to build its Vulcan Centaur launch system, both with initial launch capability by 2021.

The Air Force program dates back to 2003, and is an effort to modernize the Air Force's rocket fleet and move it away from its reliance on ULA's Delta II rocket, which was costly, and ULA's Atlas V rocket, which used Russian RD-180 engines. The "nontraditional acquisition arrangements" are typical for prototyping and "allow for shared investment", the Air Force said.

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In all, the new contracts amount to almost $2.3 billion in financial support for the three companies and set the stage for the rockets to become major players in future satellite launches, now that they have the backing of the US military to one day launch national security payloads.

The Space and Missile Systems Center will obligate at the time of award $109M in fiscal 2018 funds to each company under the cost-share agreements.

SpaceX, a current launch provider for the Defense Department, was not on the list.

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