Blue Origin, a space-transportation firm owned by Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, has reportedly won a contract to supply engines for a new Vulcan rocket being developed by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between The Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) and Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT). An announcement is expected Thursday.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine has been selected to provide the launch power for the new Vulcan rocket that is currently expected to have its first launch in 2020. ULA also is expected to use these engines to power its planned heavy-lift rocket, the New Glenn.
ULA currently uses a Russian-built engine, the RD-180, to launch its Atlas V rockets. The BE-4 is intended to replace the Russian engine
Further down the road, the U.S. Air Force is working on developing a fleet of lower-cost, more versatile rockets that aren’t necessarily hooked into the U.S. defense industry. In addition to ULA and Blue Origin, the crowded field of potential contractors includes Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies (aka, SpaceX), Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC) through its recent acquisition of Orbital ATK, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, a long-time manufacturer of rocket engines that reportedly lost the ULA business to Blue Origin.
There are some big contracts at stake. The Air Force plans to revitalize the nation’s nuclear missile force at a cost estimated at as much as $120 billion over a long contract period. Both Boeing and Northrop are competing, with Northrop’s Orbital supplying engines for Northrop’s bid and Aerojet the probable supplier for Boeing’s bid. In fact, both engine makers could supply engines to whichever company wins the prime contract.
Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have so far limited their engine development to transportation, not military, use, although SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said last week at the Air Force Association conference that the company would launch military weapons “for the defense of the country.”
At the same conference, Bezos confirmed that he has spent $1 billion of his own money on launchpads and a manufacturing facility on Florida’s space coast: “I want people … to know how committed we are to this. We’re in.”