February 28, 2015 / 3:53 PM / 3 years ago

Exclusive: U.S. Air Force eyes 28 launches, shared investment for next rockets

An Atlas 5 ULA (United Launch Alliance) rocket carrying a satellite for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Gene Blevins

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force may kick off a multibillion-dollar competition for 28 launches of government satellites this spring to help end U.S. reliance on Russian-built rocket engines, according to an Air Force document seen by Reuters on Friday.

The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center mapped out the possible tender, which would include government and private sector investment, in a request for information sent to selected companies on Feb. 18, with responses due March 20.

Congress passed a law last year requiring the Air Force to end reliance by 2019 on the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas 5 rocket used to launch key military and intelligence satellites, given escalating tensions with Russia over its annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.

The Air Force said it may award contracts between the first quarter of fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2018. The first rockets would launch no later than 2022, missing the deadline by three years.

The contracts would cover about 28 launches of military and intelligence satellites from fiscal 2020 through fiscal 2024, according to the document.

The issue is being closely watched by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, which now launches all big U.S. military and intelligence satellites, and privately held Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, which hopes to be certified to do at least some of those launches by mid-year.

Orbital ATK Inc, which builds rockets and rocket motors, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp Inc, have also expressed interest in the Air Force initiative.

Atlas 5 is one of two rockets used by the United Launch Alliance, which is working on two alternate engines with Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, and Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The latest document follows an approach taken by NASA to use commercial providers to ferry cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, a strategy favored by the White House.

That approach is at odds with legislation passed by Congress last year that focused on development of a U.S. rocket engine as a national asset with the government to own the design and make it available to all launch providers.

Air Force officials told lawmakers this week that they would likely miss the 2019 deadline given the complexity of developing a new rocket engine.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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