In a consequential decision, Air Force picks its rockets for mid-2020s launches

In a consequential decision Air Force picks its rockets for

Enlarge / Artist’s rendering of a Vulcan-Centaur rocket launch.

On Friday afternoon, the US Air Force answered one of many huge questions that had been hanging over the US launch business for greater than a yr—which two corporations might be chosen to compete for nationwide safety launch contracts from 2022 to 2026?

During a video name with reporters, William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, mentioned that United Launch Alliance will obtain roughly 60 % of the launch orders and SpaceX will obtain the opposite 40 %. Two different bidders, Northrop Grumman with its Omega rocket, and Blue Origin with its New Glenn car, won’t obtain awards.

“The ability to meet our technical factors to do the mission is the most important thing,” Roper mentioned, in response to a query on the Air Force standards. Secondary elements included previous efficiency, the flexibility to work with small companies, and complete evaluated value. The navy has nine reference orbits for big and sophisticated payloads that these rockets should meet.

United Launch Alliance

Long the navy’s sole supplier for nationwide safety launches, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has needed to adapt to compete for this new spherical of awards. Specifically, Congress prohibited the navy from procuring the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine after 2022. This engine powers ULA’s most cost-efficient rocket, the Atlas V booster.

For this purpose, ULA has been growing a brand new booster, Vulcan-Centaur, that may meet the Air Force wants whereas utilizing a US-based propulsion system. The rocket’s first stage might be powered by the BE-Four engine, which has been developed and might be manufactured by Blue Origin.

Although this rocket might make its debut in 2021, that’s not sure as technical issues virtually invariably crop up throughout the improvement of recent launch programs. Roper mentioned the corporate will have the ability to proceed to make use of the Atlas V booster till Vulcan is prepared, because the Congressional regulation solely prohibits the acquisition of recent engines, slightly than their use. A dozen of those engines can be found.

“I am very confident with the selection that we have made today,” Roper mentioned. “We have a very low risk path to get off the RD-180 engines on time and to not have to dip into that surplus that we have available.”


Of the bidders, solely SpaceX has rockets at hand for these contracts. Both the single-stick Falcon 9 rocket and the triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket have established monitor data, and the Air Force has licensed each for nationwide safety missions.

From 2022 to 2026, Roper mentioned the Air Force expects to award a complete of 30 to 34 contracts for missions. Assuming the 60-40 cut up in complete contracts, this probably will lead to contract values of about $3.5 billion for United Launch Alliance and $2.5 billion for SpaceX—however these are tough estimates and the US Air Force has not launched particular quantities. These awards be certain that ULA and SpaceX will proceed a long-running rivalry.

As a part of Friday’s announcement, the Air Force mentioned ULA has been assigned the U.S.-51 and USSF-106 missions scheduled for launch in second quarter fiscal yr 2022 and fourth quarter fiscal yr 2022, respectively. SpaceX has been assigned USSF-67, scheduled for launch in fourth quarter fiscal yr 2022. Task orders for the launch service assist and launch service contracts might be issued to ULA for $337M and SpaceX for $316M for launch providers to satisfy fiscal yr 2022 launch dates. (This latter worth suggests the SpaceX mission will probably fly on the Falcon Heavy rocket.)

Left behind

In October 2018, the Air Force awarded Launch Service Agreement (LSA) contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin to assist the event of their rockets. These funds had been supposed to assist the businesses make aggressive bids for the mid-2020s launch contracts (SpaceX was excluded, probably as a result of its rockets had been already flying).

Not all of these improvement funds have been paid, nonetheless, and people contracts will now be wound down for shedding bidders Northrop and Blue Origin. “We will work with those two companies to determine the right point to tie off their work under the LSA agreements,” Roper mentioned. “The goal is not to carry them indefinitely, the point of an LSA was to create a more competitive environment.”

Blue Origin is prone to proceed growing its New Glenn rocket—which seems unlikely to have been able to fly navy missions in 2022 anyway. The firm, based by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, will even play for industrial missions and search to get in on bidding for navy launches in 2027 and past.

Less clear is the destiny of Northrop’s Omega rocket, which seems unlikely to have a path ahead with out assured earnings from navy launch contracts.

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