U.S. Air Force awards rocket engine development contracts

WASHINGTON The U.S. Air Force on Monday awarded contracts worth more than $160 million to two separate firms involved in the development of new rocket engines to help the United States end its dependence on Russian-made rocket motors for national security space launches.

The Air Force awarded a $115 million contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc of Canoga Park, California, for the development of the AR1 rocket propulsion system prototype.

It also awarded a $46.6 million contract to a partnership of United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, and Blue Origin, a Kent, Washington-based startup owned by Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, for development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.

ULA, jointly owned by Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, has said it intends to replace the Russian-made engines on its workhorse Atlas 5 launcher with Blue Origin’s BE-4 motors. However, ULA also is keeping its options open to use Aerojet’s engine instead.

Congress banned the import of Russian engines for rockets flying U.S. military missions as part of trade sanctions to punish Russia for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula two years ago.

Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, which runs on liquid oxygen and methane, has been fully funded by Blue Origin, with investment by ULA.

“Development is on schedule to achieve qualification for flight in 2017,” ULA said in a statement.

The company intends to use the BE-4 in its new Vulcan rockets as early as 2019.

The Air Force’s agreement with Aerojet, which also is working in partnership with ULA, could be worth up to $804 million, with two-thirds of the money coming from the Air Force, Aerojet said in a statement.

A Pentagon statement said the two contracts implement a 2015 law that requires the development of a next-generation rocket propulsion system to end the U.S. military’s dependence on the Russian-supplied RD-180 rocket engine.

Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is working to break ULA’s monopoly on flying U.S. military and national security missions with its American-made Falcon rockets.

(Reporting by David Alexander in Washington and Irene Klotz in Cape Canaveral, Fla.; Editing by Alan Crosby and Matthew Lewis)

comments powered by Disqus