Blue Origin wins US Air Force contract for heavy orbital rocket

Origin founder Jeff Bezos addresses the media about the New Shepard rocket booster and Crew Capsule mockup at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs

Air Force awards launch vehicle development contracts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, ULA

Aside from Blue Origin, the two other companies that won a contract with the Air Force are United Launch Alliance (for its Vulcan-Centaur booster) and Northrop Grumman (for its OmegA launch system).

Each company will receive an initial award of $181 million. The Air Force has committed through 2024 a total of $500 million in OTA funds for Blue Origin, $792 million for Northrop Grumman and $967 million for ULA.

Northrop Grumman, which recently acquired Orbital ATK, will receive almost $800 million for its Omega launch system. ULA announced in September that its Vulcan rocket will be powered by Blue's BE-4 liquid rocket engines.

"These awards are central to the Air Force goal of two domestic, commercially viable launch providers that meet National Security Space requirements". Unlike the Atlas V rocket that the company now uses, the new rocket will use engines made in the United States.

In a statement, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said that the contract "allows us to further expand our launch manifest beyond our existing commercial customers to fly vital national security space missions". The Air Force is facing a congressional mandate to stop using those engines, issued in the wake of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.

"Our launch program is a great example of how we are fielding tomorrow's Air Force faster and smarter", said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

The three contracts are part of a Department of Defense 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.

The awards will be contracted through Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in California.

There are still more steps in the process. "The funding provided through this agreement will be used to tailor our launch vehicle and associated facilities for national security space needs".

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