The Air Force on Jan. 13 awarded two contracts for shared public-private development of prototype rocket engines to replace the Russian-made RD-180 engine. Orbital ATK was awarded $46.9 million toward development and testing of its Common Booster Segment main stage, Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM) 63XL strap-on booster, and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin’s BE-3U/EN upper stage engine, according to an Air Force Space Command release. SpaceX also was awarded $33.6 million for development and testing of the Raptor upper stage engine. The awards are part of implementing the Fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the Air Force to begin the process of replacing the Russian-made RD-180 in the Atlas V launch vehicle, the contract award states. “Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements is our end goal,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s Program Executive Officer for Space and commander of the Space and Missile Center, said in the release. “These awards are essential in order to solidify US assured access, transition the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the US launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.” (See also: No Quick Fix to RD-180, Transitioning Away From Russian-Made RD-180.)
The Air Force will begin its 71st annual Operation Christmas Drop on Dec. 4. The weeklong exercise is a yearly tradition that delivers supplies such as food, fishing equipment, school books, and clothes to remote islands in the Pacific. It is the longest-running Department of Defense humanitarian mission.