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Jeff Bezos and New Glenn
Jeff Bezos shows off the concept for the New Glenn orbital rocket during a Florida news conference in 2015. (Blue Origin Photo)

The U.S. Air Force says Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance have won its go-ahead for the development of new rockets that could be used for national security launches — a boost that could eventually add up to billions of dollars.

Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, was awarded a launch service agreement for its New Glenn rocket, which is due to be launched from Florida starting in 2021. The agreement provides for as much as $500 million through 2024, but Blue Origin is expected to contribute to a cost-sharing arrangement.

Through its recently acquired Orbital ATK subsidiary, Northrop Grumman won a $791.6 million agreement with similar terms for its OmegA launch system. ULA, meanwhile, won a $967 million agreement for its Vulcan Centaur rocket. The Vulcan is currently set for first launch in 2020, with two Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engines powering its first-stage booster. OmegA is to enter service in 2021.

Each of the companies will be getting $109 million in funds from fiscal year 2018.

In a statement, Blue Origin said the partnership with the Air Force will open the way for rapid buildout of New Glenn infrastructure such as vertical payload integration capability and a launch site at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. It’ll also aid in the completion of the certification process for national security space launches. That certification is needed to win contracts from the federal government to launch military and spy satellites.

Currently, only ULA and SpaceX have national security certification, and they’ll continue to handle those launches while the three new launch systems are being developed. SpaceX didn’t win a share of the money in the contract round announced today, but has benefited from earlier rocket development programs.

Bezos tweeted his thanks to the Air Force:

Today’s announcement is a significant step in a process aimed at fostering U.S.-made alternatives to ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which uses of Russian-built RD-180 engines on its first-stage booster. The Air Force is facing a congressional mandate to stop using those engines, issued in the wake of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.

“Our launch program is a great example of how we are fielding tomorrow’s Air Force faster and smarter,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a news release. “We’re making the most of the authorities Congress gave us and we will no longer be reliant on the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine.”

The awards will be contracted through Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base in California.

There are still more steps in the process. The agreements announced today will facilitate the development of launch system prototypes, leading to the selection of two launch service providers for national security space missions by as early as fiscal year 2020.

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