3 companies win major Air Force rocket contracts

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"These awards are a leap forward in space launch capabilities, ensuring continued USA dominance in space", said Dr. William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics.

The three contracts are part of a Department of Defence initiative to assure constant military access to space and curb reliance on foreign-made rocket engines, like ULA's flagship Atlas V rocket that uses Russian-made RD-180 boosters. Through public-private partnership agreements, the goal of the acquisition strategy is to satisfy federal law by ensuring that the US maintains assured access to space, with at least two domestic launch service providers and without reliance on non-allied rocket propulsion systems.

Since 2003, the EELV program has launched 72 national security missions using the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. The award to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is for development of the OmegA Launch System.

Each company will initially be allocated $181 million.

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In all, the new contracts amount to almost $2.3 billion in financial support for the three companies and set the stage for the rockets to become major players in future satellite launches, now that they have the backing of the USA military to one day launch national security payloads.

Two of the new rockets will be selected in a second competition, providing assured access to space through the next decade and beyond. Air Force to "leverage its commercial, heavy-lift New Glenn launch vehicle for national security space missions", according to a news release. New Glenn is expected to reach initial launch capability in 2020. ULA announced in September that its Vulcan rocket will be powered by Blue's BE-4 liquid rocket engines. Like the New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle that preceded it, the New Glenn's first stage is created to be reusable. What would further add to the sting for Elon Musk's company, is the fact that the DOD will be selecting two of these three companies to become official launch providers for the U.S. government.

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, awarded $500 million for the preliminary work, will build its New Glenn Launch System.

Interestingly, current launch provider SpaceX was not on the list.

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