WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Wednesday awarded contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems — formerly known as Orbital ATK — and United Launch Alliance to continue developing next-generation rockets. The shocking decision leaves out SpaceX, although the company could rejoin the competition later.
Over the next year or so, the companies will create launch system prototypes: Blue Origin with its New Glenn launch system, Northrop with its OmegA rocket and ULA with its Vulcan Centaur system.
Ultimately, the Air Force will narrow the field from three to two developers, who will continually compete for national security rocket launch opportunities from fiscal year 2020 onward.
SpaceX was considered by many to be a shoo-in to move forward in the competition, which the Air Force calls Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle or EELV.
The company will be able to jump into the EELV competition at a later date, an Air Force spokesman clarified in a statement to Defense News.
“Beyond the offerors selected for award, the Air Force cannot comment on specific offeror’s proposal or whether the Air Force chose not to award to a specific company,” the spokesman said. “It is important to note that SpaceX is a valuable partner to the launch service community and the Phase 2 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 Oct. 10 awards come in the form of public-private partnerships of various values. ULA’s agreement is worth $967 million in funds from the Air Force, Northrop’s stands at $792 million, while Blue Origin’s clocks in at a mere $500 million.
SpaceX and ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are the Air Force’s only current launch providers. However, SpaceX has only recently begun flying U.S. military payloads into space, winning its first contract to do so in 2016.
Under the EELV program, the competitors must develop or source domestically-produced propulsion systems — a reversal of the current status quo. ULA’s stalwart Atlas V rocket, which was the dominant launch system for years of national security space missions, is powered by a Russian-made RD-180 engine.
"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. “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."
The winning competitors have already begun celebrating the Air Force’s decision.
“ULA has launched 130 missions, with 100 percent success,” the company said in a statement. “With an American-made Vulcan Centaur, our customers will get the same reliability with higher performance at a lower cost.”
Jeff Bezos, the Blue Origin founder who spoke at the Air Force Association’s annual conference last month, tweeted his thanks to the service.
“We are proud to serve the national security space community and are committed to providing safe, reliable access to space for the nation,” he said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.