On Wednesday, the US Air Force awarded its much-anticipated new round of "Launch Service Agreements," which provide funds to rocket companies to complete development of their boosters. There were three winners:
- United Launch Services: $967,000,000 for the development of the Vulcan Centaur launch system.
- Northrop Grumman: $791,601,015 for development of the Omega launch system
- Blue Origin: $500,000,000 for the development of the New Glenn launch system
At least two other companies were believed to be in the running for these awards, as they won grants during an earlier round of funding in 2016. It was not a surprise to see Aerojet Rocketdyne fail to win an award, as that company does not appear to have a customer for its AR1 rocket engine, which the military initially supported. It was something of a surprise not to see SpaceX win an award. We will have some speculation on why this might have occurred in a moment.
These are hugely consequential awards for the rocket companies. Essentially the US Air Force, which launches more complex, heavy payloads than any other entity in the world, believes these boosters will have a significant role to play in those missions during the next decade. And when the military has confidence in your vehicle, commercial satellite contracts are more likely to follow as well.
"This is a big win for companies like United Launch Alliance, that have the space pedigree they have, and for a company like Blue Origin that is aiming to establish itself," said Phil Larson, an assistant dean and chief of staff at the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science. "It is great to see the Air Force embracing public private partnership-type arrangements even more, and of course, with anything contract related, the devil will be in the details."
About three years ago, the Air Force began thinking about how best to modernize the fleet of rockets it uses to reach space. There were a couple of drivers of this process. The Delta line of rockets built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) were reliable but increasingly costly. ULA's Atlas V rocket was more cost effective, but it relied on Russian-made rocket engines, and Congress had directed the Air Force to phase out its reliance on this RD-180 engine. At the same time, SpaceX was also coming fully into its own with the Falcon 9 rocket providing access to some of the Department of Defense's desired orbits, while its Falcon Heavy rocket was under development to reach them all.
Given all of these considerations, as the Air Force looked ahead to the early 2020s, it decided to create a new program to help American companies develop a new generation of rockets to meet its needs. The new Launch Services Agreement program sought to have at least two US-based rocket companies that could meet all nine of the military's reference orbits for large and complex payloads.
The first phase involved four awards. The first two, in January 2016, went to SpaceX for development testing of the Raptor upper-stage engine and Orbital ATK for development of the Common Booster Segment main stage, the Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM) 63XL strap-on booster, and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin's BE-3U/EN upper stage engine. The final pair of awards went to Aerojet Rocketdyne for development of the AR1 rocket engine and United Launch Alliance for development of the Vulcan/BE-4 rocket propulsion system and the ACES upper stage. The total value of these awards was $289 million.
The new winners
For ULA, the nearly $1 billion award means that it can move forward with the Vulcan Centaur rocket at full speed. There had been some question as to whether the parent companies of ULA—Boeing and Lockheed Martin—would provide the funding needed to complete development of the next-generation Vulcan rocket.
However, the Air Force funding means ULA can press ahead toward a mid-2020 launch (at the earliest) of Vulcan. This was a huge lifeline for a company that has provided the Air Force with more than a decade of costly (but supremely reliable) launches and which has struggled in the face of stiff competition from SpaceX in recent years.
This was also a game-changing win for Northrop. This company, also, seemed unlikely to pursue development of its Omega rocket without significant government funding. The Omega rocket, which uses solid-propellant rockets for its first and second stages and a liquid hydrogen upper stage, could be ready for its first flight by 2021. Such a large award for solid-rocket booster technology was a surprise to some aerospace officials Ars spoke to.
Wednesday's announcement also was a huge vote of confidence in Blue Origin and its BE-4 rocket engine, which will power both the New Glenn and Vulcan rockets. The award will allow the company to rapidly build infrastructure needed for New Glenn, including a vertical-integration facility at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, as well as perform other certification activities.
"Through the selections that were made today, we see the national security space community demonstrating [its] confidence in our BE-4 engine, which will be applied to both New Glenn and Vulcan, as well as our general approach to operational reusability using our single configuration launch vehicle that services all customers," Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in a statement.
SpaceX did not receive an award. Ars spoke with a couple of aerospace sources, who were not directly tied to SpaceX, to try and understand why. Several working theories emerged from these conversations.
For one, SpaceX has already built and flown a rocket that can reach all of the Air Force's reference orbits—the Falcon Heavy. Moreover, the Falcon Heavy is already certified for the Air Force and has won contracts. Air Force officials may also feel that, through NASA contracts for commercial cargo and crew, the government already facilitated development of the Falcon Heavy—which uses three Falcon 9 rocket cores.
It also depends upon what SpaceX bid for. The government would have been more inclined to fund development of an advanced upper stage for the Falcon Heavy or vertical integration facilities. But it seems like the military would not have been as interested in the Big Falcon Rocket, which is more booster than it deems necessary at this time. So if SpaceX bid the BFR, that is one possible explanation for no award.
Regardless of the reasons, the lack of an award for SpaceX means that the successful, innovative, and individualistic company from California will now face three companies receiving military support as it competes with them in the the global launch industry. As ever, the battle will be epic and captivating.