WASHINGTON — 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 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 $500 million Launch Service Agreement contract that the Air Force awarded in October 2018 was spread over six years, and would have continued through 2024 had Blue Origin won a launch services procurement contract. The Air Force from the beginning said the LSAs would be terminated with those companies that did not win a launch services contract. 

Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman lost to ULA and SpaceX. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper said Aug. 7 that the service planned to terminate the LSAs with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. He said the Air Force did not have money in its budget to continue funding those agreements.

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.

Although the Air Force intends to work only with ULA and SpaceX for the next five years, a third provider would give the Air Force a backup in the event of an emergency,  she said. “As space becomes increasingly contested, the national security space community needs more options at their disposal, not less.”

Blue Origin said it will continue to develop New Glenn for the commercial market but wants to stay in the national security  launch game. 

“Our business case does not depend on national security. There’s a robust civil and commercial market, but the national security community is an important long-term customer for Blue Origin,” said Mitchell. 

Blue Origin is pressing the argument to the Air Force that it would be easier and cheaper to modify New Glenn early in the program. “Adding these unique requirements later when we are at full flight rate will be much more costly,” Mitchell said. 

Blue Origin has built a huge rocket factory outside the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to manufacture New Glenn boosters and is developing a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. 

The company in February opened a factory in Huntsville, Alabama, to produce engines for New Glenn and for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...