Northrop Grumman confident Air Force will continue to fund the company’s new rocket

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Analysts see SpaceX and ULA as the front-runners for upcoming Air Force contract awards, while there is continued speculation about the future of Northrop Grumman’s newly designed Omega vehicle.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force said it will soon reveal which suppliers it selected to develop space vehicles for future national security launches.

Rocket manufacturers Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance, along with engine supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne, received an initial round of research and development contracts. They are hoping to be chosen for the next round of awards for what the Air Force calls “Launch Service Agreements.” A new player said to be in the mix is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Analysts see SpaceX and ULA as the front runners, while there is continued speculation about the future of Northrop Grumman’s newly designed Omega vehicle.

Mike Laidley, vice president of the Omega program at Northrop Grumman, told SpaceNews that the company believes it has a strong chance to win another LSA contract.

The solid-propulsion Omega was designed by Orbital ATK before it was acquired by Northrop Grumman. The company unveiled the rocket in April at the National Space Symposium just a few months after the acquisition of Orbital ATK was announced.

“We’ve been working for about three years under an Air Force OTA award to develop a solid propulsion replacement for the RD-180,” said Laidley.

OTAs, or “other transaction agreements,” are cost sharing deals where the government and the contractor pick up some portion of the development costs. One reason the Air Force started the LSA program was to ensure it has domestic launch providers to replace ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket that is powered by the Russian RD-180 engine. Congress passed a law that requires the Air Force to stop using that engine by 2022.

The first Omega model will be an intermediate-class rocket, to be followed by a heavy version. The intermediate version will fly payloads that currently use the Atlas 5 or SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

Collectively Northrop Grumman and the Air Force have invested more than $200 million in the new launch vehicle between 2015 and 2017. Laidley said that for competitive reasons he could not disclose what share of that amount the company picked up. “Our belief is that we’ll extend the OTA for another period, through 2024, to cover the certification of the intermediate and the heavy class launch system for Omega.”

The company has been in negotiations with the Air Fore Space and Missile Systems Center for several months, he said. “We think we’re pretty close.”

If the Air Force selects Omega for another OTA award, “it will take us through the certification of intermediate and heavy vehicles,” said Laidley.

The first flight of the intermediate size vehicle is planned in 2021. The Air Force said it would certify Omega for military launches after two successful flights. “We are looking for customers for those two certification flights in 2021,” he said. “At the conclusion of those two flights we’ll be certified and ready to fly government payloads in 2022.”

Whoever signs up for one of these two certification flights, will get a ride “at a reduced rate,” Laidley said.

In a solid rocket, the propellants are mixed together and packed into a solid cylinder. Northrop Grumman would be the only solid-propulsion competitor in the Air Force LSA program. It’s the same solid propulsion that was used by NASA’s space shuttle. The newer generation of vehicles use liquid propulsion.

“We can produce solid rocket motors that can provide rides that are every bit as sensitive to the needs of top government payloads as a liquid launch system,” said Laidley. “We are doing things to minimize vibration.”  Some of the payloads the government flies are “every bit as sensitive to environmental concerns as telecom satellites,” he said. “We believe we can be competitive across both markets.”

The company designed a segmented rocket motor that will form the first and second stage for the Omega intermediate vehicle. In parallel is it working on a vehicle design that includes two solid first stages along with a cryogenic third stage based on the RL-10 engine from Aerojet Rocketdyne. “We just completed a preliminary design review with the Air Force,” he said. The third stage is scheduled to begin tests in 2020.

The Omega boosters are called “common booster segments” The two-segment first stage is scheduled for a static fire test in April 2019.

The company is making the case to the Air Force that investing in Omega benefits the U.S. government  because the solid rocket motors are being used in several programs that will be in production over the next 10 years, including NASA’s future launch vehicle and the Air Force’s next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile. “Omega adds to the absorption of those fixed costs,” said Laidley, “And we can reduce costs for other government users.”