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Space companies fight for cash with rockets on the line

Rockets flying through the sky, leaving marks in the shape of a dollar sign.
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Northrop Grumman are fighting tooth and nail for the privilege of sending spy satellites and other national security payloads to orbit for the U.S. military through the mid-2020s.

Why it matters: Billions of dollars in taxpayer money are on the line, along with the viability of entirely new, massive rockets, like Blue Origin's New Glenn and ULA's Vulcan Centaur launcher.

  • Sending government payloads to orbit can be a steady source of much-needed income for nascent rocket companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
  • The up to 34 estimated launches that will be procured between fiscal years 2020 and 2024 will be split 60/40 by the two companies the Air Force chooses.

Driving the news: SpaceX — which along with ULA launches national security payloads — is now suing the U.S. government, claiming the company was wrongly denied a Launch Service Agreement by the Air Force in 2018.

  • The multimillion dollar agreements were awarded to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA to help ensure the new launch systems the three companies are developing will meet the Air Force's needs and timeline if selected as a launch provider.
  • In December, Musk reportedly admitted to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan that SpaceX's proposal "missed the mark," potentially complicating its legal case.

The state of play: The Air Force awarded Blue Origin $500 million to help the company develop its New Glenn rocket as part of the 2018 agreement. Northrop Grumman was given $792 million, and ULA received $967 million.

  • Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and ULA are developing new, heavy lift rockets that are expected to launch for the first time in 2021.
  • The viability of these rockets will depend on whether there's a market for launching large payloads destined for particular orbits.

Where it stands: A ground test of the first stage of Northrop Grumman's OmegA rocket on Thursday ended after the engine's nozzle appeared to explode.

  • ULA is in the process of building its Vulcan Centaur rocket. The rocket is designed to be partially reusable, with engines that can fly more than one mission.
  • Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket is meant to loft big payloads to orbit and is expected to be the company's debut in the orbital spaceflight business.
  • All three of these rockets are expected to be able to launch heavy payloads to a variety of orbits. (The New Glenn, for example, will be able to deliver 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit — an orbit where communications and other satellites are usually placed before the satellite maneuvers itself into its final orbit.)

Between the lines: The stakes are so high for these companies in part because right now there isn't enough of a private sector launch business to go around.

  • While the launch business appears to be robust, these companies need to lock in as much guaranteed revenue as possible if they stand a shot of making it in the long run.
  • "The demand for rockets really can't support all the providers. So, it's a kind of vicious fight to stay alive," John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios.
  • The Air Force has a lot of skin in the game, too. Whichever launch providers are selected will be on the front lines of geopolitics, projecting the U.S.'s strength against rivals like China and Russia.

What's next: The company's Vulcan Centaur will end ULA's reliance on those engines, instead opting for BE-4 engines made by its competitor and collaborator Blue Origin.The companies need to submit their proposals by Aug. 1. The Air Force is expected to pick its two providers in 2020, one year before any of the new rockets are expected to make their first flights.

The bottom line: The skirmish illustrates the new space race isn't exclusively about romantic ideas of building a city on Mars or establishing a civilization in orbit, but navigating the unsexy realm of government contracting.

Go deeper: Everything you need to know about Falcon Heavy and SpaceX's other key rockets