For a decade, there was only one company for the Pentagon to turn to for launching its satellites into space: the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing known as the United Launch Alliance.
A few years ago, Elon Musk’s SpaceX ended the company’s lucrative monopoly, after suing for the right to compete for the launches. Now, two more companies are building rockets that would be capable of vying for the launch contracts, which can be worth hundreds of millions of dollars each.
Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, and Orbital ATK, the Dulles-based outfit that already launches cargo to the International Space Station for NASA and does a lot of Pentagon business, are eyeing the contracts, company officials said. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The launch market has gone through a disruption period, led by SpaceX, in an effort to lower the cost of getting to space. With all that’s changing, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said in a recent interview that, “I don’t think that the past is a good predictor of the future,” which he said was true for the commercial satellite market as well.
Quiet and obsessively secretive for years, Blue Origin has more recently started to emerge from the shadows. Last year, it announced its first customers for its New Glenn rocket, which is set to launch for the first time in 2020. Company officials met with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs last week. Last month, Bezos tweeted a picture of himself meeting with Betty Sapp, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office.
“We cheer every new entrant who’s brave enough to go into the space business,” Sapp said in a tweet.
But Blue Origin is not the only new entrant. Orbital ATK, which recently announced its OmegA rocket, plans to bid on national security launch contracts. While not as well known as some of its competitors, it has a long heritage and is set to be acquired later this year by Northrop Grumman, which could also give it a boost.
“We don’t want to be the dark horse anymore,” said Orbital ATK spokesman Barron Beneski. “We’re in it to win it. … We are part of the fabric of national security. These are not new customers. It’s a new product.”
In addition to competing for national security launches, Blue Origin is also competing against Virgin Galactic to take paying tourists to the edge of space. For years, Virgin’s owner, Richard Branson, has been salivating at the prospect of turning ordinary people into astronauts — for a cost, at least initially, of $250,000 a ticket.
Earlier this month, its spacecraft, a winged space plane known as SpaceShipTwo, passed a major milestone when it lighted its engines for the first time in flight, tearing through the skies at nearly Mach 2. And Branson has said he hopes to start flying customers as soon as this year.
Smith said Blue Origin’s first test flight, with people, could come by the end of this year from its site in West Texas. The company, which says its ultimate goal is “millions of people living and working in space,” hasn’t announced a price for tourists, or when commercial operations would begin. But he said that the company is also eager to get ordinary people into the vastness of space.
“I'm completely supportive of all kinds of people going into space. I mean that's the whole point of what we're trying to go do,” he said. “We want poets, we want artists, we want journalists, we want all kinds of people to go out there because we believe strongly that there is this thing called the ‘overview effect,’ where people get a better perspective of where they live.”
Down on Earth, Blue Origin is also in a heated race with Aerojet Rocketdyne to supply ULA with the engine for its new rocket, which is called Vulcan. Blue Origin brought one of its BE-4 engines to the symposium, and Smith said that the company is “nearing a contractual agreement with ULA after having met the BE-4 engine performance milestones in the fall of last year and early spring of this year.”
But Eileen Drake, Aerojet’s chief executive, said it was making progress on its offering, “an engine like no other engine in the United States.”
Asked recently by a reporter when the company would make its decision, ULA CEO Tory Bruno only would say “soon.”