The U.S. Air Force will pump up to $536 million into the next-gen launch system Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is developing for United Launch Alliance.
Aerojet Rocketdyne and ULA will invest another $268 million for a total public-private investment of $804 million.
Sacramento-based Aerojet Rocketdyne is developing an alternative Vulcan rocket engine on a contingency basis. ULA eventually — perhaps by year’s end — will decide whether to use the BE-4 engine from Blue Origin or Aerojet’s AR-1 to power the Vulcan.
The Air Force contributions to the project, announced Feb. 29, are in line with a push to halt U.S. reliance on Russian-made rocket engines in its space program.
“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements continues to be our end goal,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. “These innovative public-private partnerships with industry as they develop their rocket propulsion systems are a key part of (an) acquisition strategy to assure access to space and address the urgent need to transition away from strategic foreign reliance.”
Either BE-4 or AR1 essentially will replace the Russian-built RD-180 that ULA currently uses in its fleet of Delta V rockets.
“While the RD-180 engine has been a remarkable success with more than 60 successful launches, we believe now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine,” ULA chief Tory Bruno said. “ULA continues to work with both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne to pursue two options for a next-generation American engine.”
Officials said Vulcan’s development is on schedule for flight qualification in 2017 and a first flight in 2019.