Air Force Awards Rocket Contracts to SpaceX, Orbital ATK

USAF_Space_Missile_Systems_CenterLOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., Jan. 13, 2016 (SMSC PR) — Today the Space and Missile Systems Center awarded the first two Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) for shared public-private investments in Rocket Propulsion System (RPS) prototypes 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 initial government contribution to the SpaceX OTA is $33.6 million. The initial government contribution to the Orbital ATK OTA is $46.9 million. The Air Force is still in negotiations with the remaining offerors and subsequent awards, if any, will occur over the next few months.

The OTA awards are part of a comprehensive Air Force plan to transition off the Russian- supplied RD-180 propulsion system used on the Atlas V rocket by investing in industry solutions with the ultimate goal to competitively procure launch services in a domestic launch market.

“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements is our end goal,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander. “These awards are essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space, transition the EELV program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the U.S. launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.”

The Air Force will award a portfolio of investments in industry’s RPS solutions, which vary depending on what industry proposed. The solicitation allowed companies to submit proposals for the development of a RPS prototype, which ranged from full development of a new RPS, modifications to an existing RPS to meet NSS requirements, smaller projects to address high risk items for an RPS or subcomponents, or activities required to test or qualify a new or existing RPS to meet EELV requirements. Therefore, the value of each agreement varies depending on what was proposed. At least one third of the total cost of the RPS prototype project will be paid out of funds provided by parties to the transactions other than the federal government.

These RPS investments, which will initially occur over the course of 12-18 months, will build the foundation for future investments in industry launch system solutions and launch service commitments from invested companies. Concurrently, the Air Force will continue to award launch services contracts to certified providers who demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver launch systems and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver national security space satellites to orbit.

Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., is the U.S. Air Force’s center of acquisition excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems. Its portfolio includes the Global Positioning System, Military Satellite Communications, Defense Meteorological Satellites, Space Launch and Range Systems, Satellite Control Networks, Space Based Infrared Systems and Space Situational Awareness capabilities.

  • Skylander K2

    All of us here know that this will be only a fraction of that SpaceX will spend on the development of the main RAPTOR … while waiting for the release of the MCT this year! *-*

  • Hug Doug

    “shared cost investment with SpaceX for the development of a prototype of the Raptor engine for the upper stage of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.”

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “Raptor upper stage engine”?. Seems a bit odd to refer to Raptor as just an upper stage engine.
    Anyhow, from the use of wording, it sounds to me as though all US engine manufacturers will be getting a piece of the action. Congress has given the air force a bag of cash with orders to spend it on RD-180 replacement. Knowing that the RD-180 cannot be replaced, because an entire new launcher is needed, the air force are fulfilling their congressional orders by giving development contracts to everyone suitable. Presumably AR1 and BE-4 will follow in due course.

  • Interesting. While it seems that Congress gave the USAF money it didn’t want expressly to get an RD-180 replacement (I thought for sure 100% would go to the AR-1), they are spending it on any and all next-gen propulsion projects. These are the wishlist items of ATK, Blue and SpaceX.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I, and most others, were, and still are, expecting just one Raptor, with the vacuum (i.e. upper stage) version being just a modification of the first stage engine, ala Merlin. Presumably Raptor will be used on both stages of BFR and on MCT.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Came to the same conclusion.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    OrbitalATK is developing the nozzle for BE-3U? Did I read that correctly? Seems like strange bedfellows given Blue’s secretive nature.

  • Emmet Ford

    So far, Bezos has refused to take government money. He’s playing his game his way.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Well at first I was a little surprised that SpaceX would want to develop technology “for” the air force. But now I’m thinking this is the air force’s way of getting rid of the cash that congress has given them that they didn’t ask for. You may well be correct though with regards to Bezos, though ULA, his co-financers on the BE-4, sure would take the money all day long.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    So are these solids intended for Vulcan?.

  • Yeah, that new core will support the load of the main engines firing (1.1 million pounds) PLUS two more cores strapped to it (an ADDITIONAL 2.2 million pounds). That’s a LOT of thrust, so they can size up the solids from Delta to be mini-shuttle boosters. 1.1 million / 3 = 360 k pounds of thrust per solid.

    With everything from a single-engine, 4 meter Centaur with no solids to 6 solids and a 2-engine Centaur and finally an ACES upper stage with 2 Vulcan cores as strap-ons and even man-rated, Vulcan will have the widest launch capability of any rocket currently announced.


    Oh noo, DoD is buying into Raptor.

    Beware of the dark side LUKE!

  • Solartear

    If I understand correctly, BE-3U/EN would be U=upperstage, EN=extendable-nozzle.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    Ah, that makes sense. I should have reasoned that one out given the context. *embarassed*

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Looks like the USAF want the BE-4 engine Vulcan core with the BE-3U engine upper stage. A Falcon Heavy class alternative.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    As a comment on the air force contracts, BO have released a statement about how pleased they are to be providing the BE-3U (variant of BE-3) for ATK’s next generation launch vehicle. So directly or indirectly they are getting in on the American engine congress cash.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    That was my first few seconds reaction. But is it any different from NASA funding. If it helps the engine get made, and at the end it still belongs to SpaceX, where’s the harm.


    Seems some in congress or DoD have learned the wisdom of not having an old fashion cost plus contract.

    Seems the customer has wised up some.

    Fool me once your fault.
    Fool me twice my fault

    DoD funding Mars Rocket 🙂

  • larryj8

    If I were AJR, I’d be worried. It looks like the Air Force is making moves to cut them out of the EELV class market. AJR builds the solids for the Atlas V. This contract is funding the development of a replacement that can also be used on Vulcan.

    AJR builds the RS-68 used on the Delta IV, which ULA has said they’re dropping except for the Heavy variant. The Vulcan will eventually be able to replace the Delta IV Heavy, so no more RS-68s after that. In addition,

    AJR builds the RL-10s used on Atlas and Delta upper stages. This contract helps fund the development of a replacement engine for that, too. The RL-10 is a solid, reliable engine but I’ve read they cost somewhere around $10-20 million each in part because they’re largely hand-made. It’s based on early 1960s brazing technology. Having no competitors doesn’t encourage AJR to lower the price, either. I bet NASA would be happy with an RL-10 replacement especially for the Starliner (CST-100) missions because they require 2 RL-10s for the upper stage. A BE-3U can be deeply throttled and still powerful enough to replace 2 RL-10s.

    ETA: As for the Raptor, it may be considered as an alternative should there be delays in the BE-4 development. I have not seen any significant money going toward AJR’s AR-1 engine.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Air Force’s aid to SpaceX has a long tradition: There would be no SpaceX today without Air Force. Please remember to the important Falcon 1 “test” flight financed by Air Force (100 million dollar), which saved SpaceX.

  • windbourne

    I have said this before that ajr and o-atk are in trouble. The reason is that they are building parts and charging massive dollars with large profits. Both of them need to start building full systems, or getting rid of the expensive MBAs that do nothing but waste money.
    If I were ajr, I would focus on building a re-fuelable tug on their own. The services will be needed and could be used right away in geo to move old sats ( such as dispose of them ).

  • windbourne

    DOD is the ones that got rid of cost+ in the first place. They try to use it less, but current american defense companies are still about MBAs and less about engineering.

  • windbourne

    ?? I thought i saw that Vulcan was atlas derived. It is delta-derived?

    Agree about the coming battle. However, ula really needs to get with program to compete with SX and BO, if they have reusable first stages. And no, just catching an engine will not cut it.

  • larryj8

    Refuelable/reusable space tugs could significantly change the launch industry. You’d also need propellant depots to make everything work efficiently. Instead of needing a booster with an upper stage powerful enough to lift a payload into GTO (or GEO, in some cases), you’d only need to deliver the payload to a defined LEO parking orbit. The tug could then dock with the payload and boost it. Once in the destination orbit (GTO or GEO), the tug could do a burn to lower the perigee and use aerobraking to reduce the apogee over time. If the destination orbit was GEO, it’d be much harder to lower the perigee to intersect the atmosphere but possible if the tug had enough delta-v capability.

    As for disposing of old GEO satellites, most are boosted to supersynch orbit for disposal at the end of their operational life. A fairly small percentage of them fail suddenly and weren’t able to be boosted. However, disposing of them could be quite challenging. Left on its own, a GEO satellite’s orbital inclination will increase about 1 degree per year due to perturbation effects. Changing the tug’s orbital plane to match the target’s orbit takes a lot of energy. I doubt you’d be able to do that and still have enough energy to recover the tug. Perhaps solar-powered electric propulsion would work but it’d take many months to recover the tug. You’d need several tugs in orbit to make that work. Just thinking out loud.

    Tugs could also be useful in disposing larger pieces of space junk (spent rocket bodies and dead satellites) in LEO. You’d have to be contracted by the junk’s owner (OST of 1967) but there could be a market for that. The problem with LEO debris today is similar to the classic economic paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

  • windbourne

    Interesting that the contract ends in 2018. Basically, 3 years of testing on this. Merlin was quite a bit faster.
    I wonder if maturity means that they have spread themselves to far out, or are they learning to test all cases, or simply, they are becoming slow and expensive like other defense companies?

  • windbourne

    Actually, it was NASA money that they credit with saving them. But USAF is certainly not just a simple contract. After all, they spent a lot to go after ULAs cash cow.

  • windbourne

    1 version of raptor? So, the vacumm version will work fine on Mars?

  • Hug Doug

    I think 2018 is the cut-off because the Air Force wants a next-gen LV design finalized by then. I suspect that all these engines will eventually be in competition for (or there will be some combination thereof in) a new LV.

    This is very similar to how the original EELV competition started, except instead of competing rockets, they’re starting with rocket engine development. Just hope that it won’t result in the formation of another ULA.

    I also think it may be the Air Force’s way of forcing change onto the players in the existing launch market. They realize that doing business as usual won’t cut it in the future.

  • Depends on the part. The overall architecture is closer to Atlas (two engines per core), but ULA did a pick-and-choose on their existing stuff. Solid strap-ons: Delta derived, upper stage: Centaur from Atlas, core stage tooling: 5 m diameter from Delta, heavy fuel: Atlas derived.

    For marketing purposes (read: PRICE), they are smart to call it Atlas derived, but Tory Bruno has pointed out some of the heritage of the parts.

    As for reusability, I freely admit that I’m not betting on anything. We were in exactly this spot 40 years ago “Shuttle will make it all so cheap that all other vehicles, national and international, should be canceled”. The hype was so overpowering that everyone bought in. It took SpaceX 10 years to figure out F9 (ps, ALL aerospace designs take 10 years), it’ll take another 10 years to figure out reusability. I do all my analysis assuming there is no gains from reusability, I simply have no data to indicate otherwise, and lots to the contrary.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Yes, I’d of thought so. depending on what altitude on Mars you were going to, the atmospheric pressure would correspond to somewhere between 30-57 km altitude on Earth. Don’t see why a vacuum version engine wouldn’t work at sea level on Earth, just not at peak efficiency. If you or someone else knows different I’d be happy to be corrected.

  • TomDPerkins

    “I do all my analysis assuming there is no gains from reusability”

    An utter failure on your part to assume the indefinite production of buggy whips.

  • TomDPerkins

    Vacuum optimized engines generally will have their exhaust bells collapse if operated at sea level.

  • Flatley

    Another (or perhaps the same as TDPerkins’ comment) limiting factor is that if your exit/throat area ratio is too large shocks will develop at high atmospheric pressures. Running some quick numbers and looking at this plot, the RL-10 has a SL pressure ratio of 0.025 and an expansion ratio of 250, putting it past the shock line if operated at sea level.

    To the discussion at hand, Mars’ atmosphere is so slight that the limiting factor in the area ratio will almost surely be nozzle size rather than optimum expansion; I don’t imagine there would need to be any difference between Mars atmospheric and vacuum engines in that case.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I got that this was only one of several possible announcements regarding air force engine development contracts, so perhaps AR-1 funding is to follow at a later date. Wasn’t the congress funding $220M and these announcements aren’t that much.

    On the other hand perhaps the air force have spotted a trend and are steering clear of kerosene developments.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Thanks for the detail there. So the bell might be a limiting factor at low Earth altitudes, but not so on Mars. It does strike me as highly unlikely that SpaceX would want to carry extra engines just for the bottom few km of Mars’ atmosphere.

  • windbourne

    The only way to avoid the ULA problem is if demand grows so as to handle a multiple of launch companies. In addition, we need to roll back to no monopolies, pre-reagan.
    That is why I continue to speak of a cots for space stations, and support for private space to go to the moon. Sats, regular NASA, and defense will not create enough demand to allow 2 private American to exist with 1 European, 1 Russian, 1 Japanese, 1 south Korean and chinese launch companies,. And we may have 3-4 American launch companies if done right.

  • Do you have any data indicating otherwise? Have you signed any contracts with SpaceX for a booster at 1/100th the current price? I’m sure prices can come down, but I don’t know by how much or by when.

  • windbourne

    When is the interesting question. As to how much, until BO develops their reusable orbital, I would be amazed if price comes down more than 25%. Keep in mind that their goal is Mars which will require a massive financial base.

  • duheagle

    Neat to see this in writing as I had speculated a couple of years back (at the late Space Politics blog, I think) about the use of single Raptors as prime movers for enhanced Falcon upper stages. A Raptor vacuum engine should have roughly three times the thrust of a Merlin 1-D vacuum engine. The higher thrust and higher ISP should combine to make the Falcon 9 2.0 a muscle match for all but the most expensive configurations of ULA’s Vulcan. On a Falcon Heavy 2.0 it would enable SpaceX to out-muscle a Block I SLS in terms of lift capacity to LEO.

  • Hug Doug

    The big (literally) issue is that liquid Methane has about half the density of RP-1. SpaceX will need to increase the size of the second stage to be able to carry more fuel. I don’t think stretching is an option any more (I already find the Falcon 9 to be uncomfortably thin), so they will probably have to increase the diameter of the second stage. It will be a major change, but you are right, there will be a really big boost to its performance.

  • ReSpaceAge

    I recall the air force losing payloads on early falcon 1 flights ????