The U.S. Air Force announced on Wednesday it is awarding three contracts collectively worth about $2 billion to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and United Launch Alliance to develop launch system prototypes.
Blue Origin stated that it would pursue a launch site at the Vandenberg Air Force Base and would gain certification for national security missions.
Meanwhile, the Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems will be receiving $791.6 million towards creating an all new rocket called the OmegA launch system.
The Defense Department has the option to narrow it to two companies no later than 2020 that will then compete for future launches. And United Launch Alliance - a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing - received a $967 million award for development of its Vulcan Centaur Launch System.
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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the program "is a great example of how we are fielding tomorrow's Air Force faster and smarter". Finally, Blue Origin will receive $500 million to help in the development of its future New Glenn rocket, which are supposed to be able to come back to earth in one piece after launching their payloads - a technology SpaceX has already developed, and almost perfected.
The Atlas 5's use of Russian-built RD-180 first stage engines has generated widespread controversy in recent years, but the new Vulcan Centaur will use two of Blue Origin's BE-4 engines in its first stage and Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines in the Centaur second stage. The Atlas uses RD-180 engines made in Russian Federation.
Awarded under the United States government's Launch Service Agreement, these contract form part of the USA government's attempts to reduce reliance on Russian rockets for launches that are of national importance from a security standpoint. "The funding provided through this agreement will be used to tailor our launch vehicle and associated facilities for national security space needs".
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. "These awards are central to the Air Force goal of two domestic, commercially viable launch providers that meet National Security Space requirements", said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, the Air Force's Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander.