The Air Force in August selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as its launch providers for the next five years. Blue Origin competed for the job but lost and, as a result, the Air Force plans to terminate a $500 million contract Blue Origin received in 2018 to advance the development of its New Glenn rocket.The Air Force chose ULA and SpaceX over Northrup Grumman and Blue Origin. Back in August, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper said that the service planned to terminate the LSAs with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman (LSA = Launch Services Agreement), explaining that the Air Force didn't have the money to continue funding those agreements. Naturally, the Air Force started to prepare for legal challenges, which seems to be the norm.
The company is moving forward with New Glenn with the goal to debut the vehicle in 2021 and pursue commercial work, but it is trying to make the case to the Air Force that it should continue to fund the vehicle and the ground infrastructure that it would need to be certified for national security missions.
“We’re discussing with the Air Force the path forward for certification,” Megan Mitchell, Blue Origin’s director of government and legislative affairs, told SpaceNews.
The purpose of the agreements was to help Phase 2 competitors pay for launch vehicle development and infrastructure. Blue Origin received $500 million; Northrop Grumman $792 million and ULA $967 million. The funds were to be spread out through 2024, and the Air Force from the beginning said the LSAs would be terminated with those companies that did not win a Phase 2 procurement contract.Blue Origin argues that they should be funded in the interest of national security. Megan Mitchell, Blue Origin’s director of government and legislative affairs, told SpaceNews.
Development of the New Glenn will continue. Blue Origin has lined up paying customers for satellite deliveries to orbit, but this is undoubtedly a setback for the company. They also have paying customers (United Launch Alliance) for their BE-4 methane/LOX engines. It has always struck me as an interesting rocket. It was going to be (still may become) the first reusable, orbital class rocket powered by methane-oxygen engines, and in the size class of the Saturn V.
Mitchell said she could not disclose how much of the $500 million from the LSA contract has been invested so far in New Glenn and ground infrastructure. “But I can tell you we had begun development of national security space-unique infrastructure required to meet national security needs. We also completed the initial segment of the national security space launch certification process, the assessment phase,” she said.
If the Air Force decided to continue funding New Glenn, “they would get a third certified launch provider strengthening assured access to space for critical national security space assets,” said Mitchell.