Orbital ATK, SpaceX to develop prototype rocket engines

Seeking to shore up its launch capabilities for military space missions and end reliance on a Russian-made rocket engine, the Air Force has awarded contracts to Orbital ATK and SpaceX to develop rocket engines for its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

The Air Force awarded Orbital ATK a $47 million contract to build three prototype propulsion systems for use with the company’s next-generation launch vehicle, according to the contract announcement by the Defense Department. 

Elon Musk’s SpaceX also  received a $33.6 million contract to develop a prototype of its Raptor rocket engine to be used in the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

The Air Force, under pressure from Congress, is looking to replace the Russian-made RD-180 engine that is used in Atlas V rockets by United Launch Alliance, which currently holds a sole-source contract for launching military satellites. When tensions arose after Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, Congress mandated in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that DOD find a new, domestically produced rocket engine by 2019. Although the Air Force has said that deadline isn’t realistic and Congress subsequently eased off on its ban, work toward a new engine it is moving ahead.

Both companies will contribute funding under the contracts, according to DOD’s announcement. ATK will contribute $31 million up front, and as much as $125 million. The government’s investment, if all options are exercised, could be as much as $180 million.

SpaceX, meanwhile, will contribute $67 million to start and as much as $123 million, while the government investment could reach $61 million.

Orbital ATK was formed last year through the merger of Orbital Sciences Corp. and the former Alliant Techsystems Inc. The merger was completed last February, creating a $4.5 billion aerospace and defense company.

Scott Lehr, president of Orbital ATK’s Flight System Group, said the Air Force funding, "together with our own research and development investments, will lead to an operational launch capability in 2019."

The Air Force contract follows a surprise decision last fall by United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, to switch to Orbital ATK's solid rocket motors for its next-generation Vulcan launcher. Aerojet Rocketdyne had supplied solid rocket engines for ULA's workhorse Atlas V rocket used to loft most military satellites.

ULA has said it would switch to Orbital ATK motors for the Atlas V by late 2018. The new Vulcan booster is scheduled for its maiden flight in mid-2019.

SpaceX last year was certified by the Air Force to compete for future EELV contracts and in December successfully land the lower stage of one of its Falcon 9 rockets after an orbital flight. Reusable rockets could lower the costs of satellite launches, a prospect SpaceX has touted and ULA responded to with it switch to Orbital ATK motors, saying they would "significantly lower the price to ULA and to the U.S. government."

Orbital ATK won a separate Air Force contract in December as part of the service's Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation effort. Under the $3 million contract, Orbital ATK will complete studies to advance technologies required to "enhance performance and safety while reducing cost in support of the next generation booster."

The Air Force has said it is in negotiations with other companies, such as Aerojet Rocketdyne, and could award further contracts for development of a rocket engine.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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