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SpaceX and ULA Win Billions in Pentagon Missile Contracts, Beat Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the Arabsat 6A communications satellite launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 11, 2019.

Joe Skipper | Reuters

The US Air Force on Friday awarded rocket builders United Launch Alliance and SpaceX worth billions to launch national security missions for five years from 2022.

The awards represent the second phase of the military's National Security Space Launch program organized by the Air Force's Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California. Four companies – SpaceX, ULA, Northrop Grumman and Jeff Bezos & # 39; Blue Origin by Elon Musk – are competing for the contracts. The military is expected to spend about $ 1 billion a year on launches.

The NSSL prizes represent nearly three dozen launches scheduled between 2022 and 2026. ULA won 60% of the launches and SpaceX won the remaining 40%.

The landed Falcon 9 rocket booster from SpaceX's Demo 2 mission is returning to Port Canaveral, Florida.


ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX are the reigning launch providers for national security missions, having launched dozens of payloads for the military over the past decade. National security missions are the most lucrative in the missile business, valued well in excess of $ 100 million per launch. The US military placed launch orders worth over $ 12 billion to ULA and SpaceX between 2012 and 2019.

Two years ago, the Air Force placed ULA, Northrop Grumman and Blue Origin development contracts valued at $ 967 million, $ 792 million and $ 500 million, respectively. The process was very competitive. SpaceX sued the Air Force after failing to win a development award, and Blue Origin protested the criteria the Pentagon used for the launch contracts.

Each of the companies has developed next-generation missiles with the NSSL contracts a top priority. SpaceX has a fleet of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and is currently testing its massive Starship rocket. ULA is building its volcanic missile to replace the aging Atlas and Delta missile fleets and end reliance on Russian-built rocket engines. ULA's Atlas V missile is powered by RD-180 engines purchased from Russia.

Artist rendering of the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan system.

United Launch Alliance

Northrop Grumman developed its OmegA missile and focused primarily on winning Air Force contracts. While the company expected OmegA to serve markets beyond the military, the loss of the awards casts doubt on Northrop Grumman's continued development.

A rendering of Orbital ATK's OmegA missile.

Orbital ATK

Blue Origin is likely to keep building its New Glenn rocket, though the award is being lost, given the other projects Bezos' company is working on. New Glenn is designed to be able to reuse its rockets in a similar way to SpaceX, with the booster returning after each mission. Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told CNBC last year that the company would continue to develop New Glenn regardless of whether it received NSSL startup contracts.

Artist rendering of Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket.

Blue origin

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