Since the launch of the first satellite, space has been a rhetorical battleground. When the Cold War ended 25 years ago, it ushered in a bold new era of international cooperation in the heavens. One of the more remarkable results of this is that, for years, American military satellites were launched into space on the backs of converted Russian rocket engines.
However, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued support for armed separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine, reusing these old engines became somewhat politically toxic. To get American military satellites on American-made rockets, the United States Air Force just awarded contracts to Orbital ATK and SpaceX to build them.
SpaceX’s $33.6 million share of the contract is aimed at further developing the "Raptor" rocket engine, which will be six times more powerful than the engine the company will use to launch a satellite on Sunday.
Orbital's $47 million contract includes funding to develop three propulsion systems: two of its own, and one that would help complete the BE-3U engine, which is being built by Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, but may also be used on an Orbital ATK spacecraft in the future. From Defense News:
Specifically, the contract includes development of prototypes of Orbital ATK’s GEM 63XL strap-on solid rocket motor, the Common Booster Segment solid rocket motor and an Extendable Nozzle for Blue Origin’s BE-3U engine. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, has been pushing its Blue Engine (BE) class of engines as a homegrown alternative to the RD-180.
This funding has been a long time coming. In May of 2015, the Air Force announced it would let SpaceX to compete for contracts to deliver satellites for the first time. In June of 2015, the Pentagon asked Congress to ease sanctions on Russia so they could continue to launch satellites. By October, the Pentagon was asking for specific permission to buy old Russian rockets again, to fill the launch schedule until newer rockets were available.
With their new contract awards, it appears the Air Force isn’t just committed to buying American, it wants to make sure its satellites fly American, too.