Three new rockets could blast national security missions into orbit from the Space Coast thanks to a trio of contracts the Air Force awarded Wednesday, worth nearly $2.2 billion.
United Launch Alliance, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and Blue Origin were the winners of the Air Force’s Launch Services Agreements, making each a potential launcher of high-value Pentagon missions within the next few years.
“These awards are a leap forward in space launch capabilities, ensuring continued U.S. dominance in space,” said William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.
SpaceX was notably absent from the list, but the Air Force said the company would be eligible to compete for actual launch contracts that won’t be awarded before 2020.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are the only rockets already flying and certified today to launch military missions that might compete for those contracts.
It was not immediately clear if SpaceX might have sought funding for its Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, the system CEO Elon Musk wants to fly people around the moon and eventually to Mars.
“It is important to note that SpaceX is a valuable partner to the launch service community and the (next) solicitation will be a full and open competition for all launch providers who have a low-risk proposal to achieve Air Force certification prior to initial launch,” the Air Force said in a statement.
The other competitors for military launches will be ULA’s Vulcan, Northrop’s OmegA and Blue’s New Glenn, all still in development. Wednesday awards are intended to produce prototypes of each rocket, with the companies sharing some of the costs.
Ultimately, the Air Force may select only two companies to launch missions, with a minimum of two fulfilling the service’s requirement for “assured access to space.”
ULA alone provided that access for more than a decade with its Atlas and Delta rockets, but SpaceX emerged as a competitor in recent years. The field could grow more competitive in the next decade.
The Air Force on Wednesday gave $967 million to ULA to help develop the Vulcan booster and an upgraded Centaur upper stage, which will share Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41 with ULA’s existing Atlas V rocket and fly as soon as 2021.
The Atlas V has been the Pentagon’s workhorse rocket for years. But its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 main engine was the driving force behind Congress’ desire to fund next-generation rockets with all-domestic propulsion.
Northrop won $792 million to develop the OmegA, which would fly from Kennedy Space Center and use former space shuttle infrastructure.
The three-stage rocket would be stacked in High Bay 2 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on a modified shuttle launch platform and share pad 39B with NASA’s Space Launch System exploration rocket, launching as soon as 2021.
Another $500 million will go to Blue Origin’s New Glenn, which will be manufactured in a KSC factory and fly from the Cape’s Launch Complex 36 as soon as 2020. With Wednesday’s award, the company said it would also build a launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which typically hosts missions bound for polar orbits.
Blue Origin’s BE-4 main engines will serve as the power plant for both the New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan, giving it a stake in two of the four competitors.
“We are proud to serve the national security space community and are committed to providing safe, reliable access to space for the nation,” Jeff Bezos, the billionaire Amazon.com founder who funds Seattle-based Blue Origin, said on Twitter.