SpaceX Cut Out of Air Force Contracts for New Rockets

Government awards $2 billion in developmental funds to three of SpaceX’s competitors to promote competition in the national security launch market.

The Pentagon recently awarded more than $2 billion in contracts for rockets capable of launching national security satellites. SpaceX was not one of the winners.

“The goal of this [group of agreements] is to make sure we have a competitive industrial base,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions.

The contracts are for the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Northrop Grumman’s OmegA and ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rockets.

“SpaceX does not need development money,” said Charles Miller, a former NASA adviser and president of the NextGen Space consultancy.

SpaceX may have been left out because it already has what the Air Force wants. Additionally, the military preferred to spend those dollars on new vehicles to foster competition.

ULA was awarded nearly $1 billion for its Vulcan Centaur, which will replace the company’s Delta 4 and Atlas 5 boosters. The Atlas rockets have been criticized for using Russian engines. The new rocket will use ones built domestically.

Northrop Grumman, through its recently bought subsidiary Orbital ATK, will receive nearly $800 million for its OmegA launch system—a rocket intended for both national security missions and commercial and scientific launches.

Blue Origin was awarded $500 million for its New Glenn rocket, which features a fully reusable first stage. The award is Blue Origin’s first major government contract. The company has relied heavily on the fortune of its billionaire founder, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for years. 

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, one of the recipients of Air Force developmental funding.

The agreements “will facilitate the development of three domestic launch system prototypes and enable the future competitive selection of two National Security Space launch service providers for future procurements,” the Air Force said.

This developmental funding is intended to push those companies to have rockets ready for the next competition, during which the Air Force will pick two candidates for five years’ worth of launches each.

The company that isn’t picked will have its funding terminated and have to return the money it spent to the government. Not only will ULA, Blue Origin and Northrop compete with each other, the bid will be an open one. That means SpaceX could also step into the ring.

SpaceX made headway for commercial rocket launches with its successful challenge a few years ago to the monopoly on Air Force rocket launches held by ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Now, the Air Force is giving funding to SpaceX’s competitors to help them catch up. This is an encouraging sign of growth and increasing competition in the commercial space launch sector.

Want to find out about the military contract SpaceX did win? Check out SpaceX Wins Air Force Satellite Launch Contract.