WASHINGTON – The US Air Force has awarded contracts to space companies Aerojet Rocketdyne and United Launch Alliance — a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin — to develop homegrown rocket-booster engines as part of the effort to end reliance on Russian RD-180 engines for US space launch.

The announcement marks another step toward the Pentagon’s goal of replacing the RD-180, which currently powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, with a domestic alternative by 2019.

Aerojet nabbed a $115.3 million contract to develop a prototype of its liquid oxygen/kerosene-fueled AR-1 booster engine for the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, according to the Pentagon’s Feb. 29 contract announcement.

The total agreement is valued at $804 million, with all government and company options included, according to an Aerojet statement. The Air Force will invest two-thirds of the funding required to complete development of the AR-1 engine, while the company will invest one-third. The work is expected to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2019.

“This award from the U.S. government demonstrates its support of AR1 and recognizes the priority of assured access to space for our critical national security assets,” said Eileen Drake, CEO and president of Aerojet Rocketdyne, according to the company statement. “The AR1 engine is the option with the least technical risk that allows the United States to quickly and efficiently transition off its use of Russian-supplied engines currently used on the Atlas V launch vehicle.”

ULA is a subcontractor to Aerojet on the AR-1, according to an Aerojet spokesman. Alabam-based Dynetics will be a key partner, supplying elements of the AR-1 engine’s main propulsion system, ignition system, ground support equipment, as well as providing analysis support to critical engine designs, according to the Aerojet statement.

Separately, the Air Force also awarded ULA a $46.6 million contract to develop prototypes of its Vulcan BE-4, booster stage engine, and its Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), an upper-stage engine, for EELV, according to the contracts announcement. Both of these rocket propulsion systems are intended for use on ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle.The BE-4, developed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas rocket engine, according to a ULA statement.

"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,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer, according to the statement. “As America’s ride to space, we continue to meet our goal of delivering the most reliable launch systems at the most affordable cost, while developing a new rocket which enables brand-new opportunities for the nation’s use of space.”

Including all options, the total potential government investment is $201.7 million, while the total potential ULA investment is $134.2 million. The work is expected to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2019.

The Air Force announced the first awards for rocket propulsion system development Jan. 13, awarding contracts to Orbital ATK and SpaceX.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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