Four big-name rocket companies vie for future of military missions

An artist rendering of Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket in flight.


By RICHARD TRIBOU | Orlando Sentinel | Published: August 13, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — United Launch Alliance joined SpaceX, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman as the four companies officially in the mix for the Air Force’s lucrative competition for the next generation of rockets.

The deadline for submission was Monday, and now the Air Force will decide on two of the four companies to service at least 25 missions from 2022-2026. The decision on which two companies land the contract will come in 2020.

Blue Origin, ULA and Northrop Grumman all received millions in grants from the Air Force in 2018 to pursue their rocket development while SpaceX has moved forward on its own.

All four rocket designs will feature engines built in the U.S., and not Russian-built engines such as those currently used ULA’s Atlas launches.

The new ULA rocket in development is the Vulcan Centaur. Blue Origin is building the New Glenn rocket at a facility in Cape Canaveral. Both will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines currently in development. Northrop Grumman’s entry is the Omega heavy lift rocket.

All three are targeting 2021 for their first launch. SpaceX already has its fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets in use, and the only rockets to already have achieved national security certification.

The last of the four companies to submit was ULA, which is building its new rocket at a factory in Decatur, Alabama, but will ship its first finished vehicle to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2020 ahead of the planned 2021 debut.

“Atlas and Delta rockets have been the backbone of national security space launch for decades, building on a progressive history of technology development and advancement -- Vulcan Centaur will advance this rich heritage,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO in a press release. “Following the successful launch of our 134th mission just last week on our Atlas rocket, we submitted our purpose-built Vulcan Centaur rocket for the U.S. Air Force’s Phase 2 Launch Services competition. It is so exciting to see the first flight vehicle coming together at our factory."

Blue Origin, though, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office on Monday, although it also submitted for the competition, according to Defense News. As one of two companies along with Northrop Grumman, trying to break into the lucrative Air Force contract business, Blue Origin’s protest said the current way the Air Force decides on the finalists may skew to favor existing companies SpaceX and ULA.

Blue Origin had earlier lobbied for more time to develop the launch vehicle plans, but the Air Force has stayed on schedule with the competition timeline.

“We think competition is good and we welcome the competition and the thing we really want to make sure that we have are actual hardware that we can actually go evaluate and so it just seems premature and we could probably delay and still have the same level of competition, perhaps even better insight,” said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith last April at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “These are big one-way door decisions that we have for the nation and what infrastructure we put down and how we put that down is important, and so we think more time actually would be beneficial.”

Smith was on stage with ULA CEO Bruno talking about the Vulcan rocket.

“The schedule that the Air Force has put together is part of a large acquisition that was very thoughtfully put together and is the fastest path to end the U.S. dependency on the Russian rd-180 rocket engine," Bruno countered. “So Let’s get on with it and get it done.”

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