The Air Force awarded United Launch Alliance (ULA), Northrop Grumman [NOC], and Blue Origin each multi-hundred million dollar contracts on Wednesday to develop a launch system prototype by 2021 for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Blue Origin will develop its New Glenn launch system with an initial launch capability by 2020, according to an Air Force statement. 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.

Atlas V rocket lifting off with NRO payload from Vandenberg, AFB on March 1. Photo: 30th Space Wing
Atlas V rocket lifting off with NRO payload from Vandenberg, AFB on March 1. Photo: 30th Space Wing

All three agreements will be incrementally funded with fiscal year 2018 through 2024 research, development, test and evaluation funds using other transaction agreement (OTA) funding. $109 million was obligated for each awardee at time of award. Should the companies eventually progress to win contracts to become national security space launch providers, ULA could receive up to $967 million in government development funds, while Northrop Grumman would receive $792 million, and Blue Origin would be awarded $500 million, William Roper, assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, said on Wednesday.

The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) released a solicitation for new launch service proposals almost exactly one year ago (Defense Daily, Oct. 9, 2017). The request for proposals issued by the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) states that the award would fund the development of at least three launch system prototypes.

The Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] conglomerate United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, Orbital ATK —now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems —and Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] all received initial research and development contracts for launch services from the Air Force, and could all be competing for the follow-on contract.

The Air Force awarded three contracts to ensure that it would see competition when it progresses to phase 2 of the launch service program, Roper said.

“We think they’re all going to be highly competitive to getting us to a launch capability that meets national security space requirements ahead of the congressionally mandated 2022 date to get off of the Russian RD-180 engines,” he added. “We think each competitor has a viable path to get to that.”

Roper told reporters at the Pentagon that the launch service agreement awards will not preclude other companies from competing for the second phase of the launch service program, which will be a “full and open” competition.

“Just because you are part of the OTA we awarded doesn’t mean you’re the only competitor for phase 2,” he said.

Roper did not comment on whether SpaceX submitted a proposal for the contract, noting, “We don’t talk about the number of offerors, if someone proposed or not,” and added that the Air Force is “very happy with the three awardees.”

SpaceX is “an important member of our launch team,” he noted. The company has received seven launches to date, and the Air Force will “certainly work with SpaceX to continue with certifications so they can compete for Phase 2,” he added.

The contract announcements said these launch service agreements leverage commercial launch solutions in order to get at least two domestic commercial launch service providers to meet national security space requirements, including launching the heavies and most complex payloads.

ULA’s agreement requires shared cost investment to develop the Vulcan Centaur launch system with work expected to be finished by March 2025. Northrop Grumman’s award covers shared cost investment of its OmegA launch system with work expected to be finished by Dec. 2024. Likewise, Blue Origin’s agreement includes shared cost investment to develop the New Glenn launch system with work set to be finished by July 2024.

Since 2016, lawmakers have been pushing for the Air Force to seek replacements for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket that currently powers the first stage of ULA’s Atlas V rocket. In September, the service awarded Blue Origin a contract to supply its BE-4 engine for the Atlas V replacement vehicle, dubbed the Vulcan Centaur rocket (Defense Daily, Sept. 28). The company edged out Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 system for the contract. The BE-4 engine will also power Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, company executives have previously stated.

The national security launch contracts are currently awarded under the Air Force’s evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV), but a congressional mandate included in the fiscal year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) directed the effort to be renamed the National Security Space Launch program by March 1, 2019.

Several of the competing companies are involved with scheduled launches this month and later in the year. The next ULA Atlas V launch is currently scheduled to carry Lockheed Martin’s fourth advanced extremely high frequency protected communications satellite into orbit on Oct. 17 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

SpaceX also plans to launch its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle sometime this fall following its debut launch from Cape Canaveral this past February, according to the Kennedy Space Center. Launch is scheduled “no earlier than October 2018,” according to the center’s website. The Falcon Heavy rocket is a partially reusable derivative of the Falcon 9 system, with a strengthened first stage and two additional first stages as strap-on boosters.