Spaceflight Insider

Orbital ATK, SpaceX awarded contracts by U.S. Air Force


Orbital ATK and SpaceX have both received significant awards to produce propulsion systems under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. Image Credit: Orbital ATK

The U.S. Air Force announced on Wednesday, Jan. 13, that its Space and Missile Systems Center had awarded OTAs (Other Transaction Agreements) to two aerospace firms – SpaceX and Orbital ATK. These agreements are for a shared public-private partnership to develop rocket propulsion systems prototypes. It is hoped these agreements will help to end U.S. dependence on foreign-made rocket engines.

Under this agreement, Orbital ATK was awarded $46.9 million and SpaceX $33.6 million. Orbital ATK will develop the Common Booster Segment main stage, the Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM) 63XL strap-on booster, and an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin’s BE-3U/EN upper stage engine for United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan launch system.

Vulcan 441 rocket diagram ULA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Diagram of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Next Generation Launch System. Image Credit: ULA

“Orbital ATK is developing the GEM63/63XL strap-on solid motor, which will be used on Vulcan as well as being in the trade space for a family of vehicles we are evaluating,” Mark Pieczynski, Vice President of Business Development for Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group told SpaceFlight Insider.

The GEM63/63XL boosters have been selected to replace the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-60A SRBs currently used on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and the Vulcan family of launch vehicles. The OTAs are designed to help transition DoD missions away from the Russian-produced RD-180 rocket engine, which has become a political lightning rod since the 2014 military actions by Russia in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has been conducting development tests of the Raptor upper stage engine for the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 has changed the dynamic of how space contracts are awarded when it was included in the EELV contract, a goal long sought after by the Hawthorne, California-based firm.

What this meant for the EELV program is, actually, rather simple. The program currently has two launch vehicles, United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and Delta IV family of rockets. The EELV program’s dynamic should now change to two distinct boosters produced by two companies – United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan and SpaceX’s Falcon 9. The Vulcan system has to be certified before being included under EELV.

Having this level of diversity should ensure greater stability in terms of the United States being able to regularly launch its own classified defense payloads.

“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements is our end goal,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s Program Executive Officer for Space and SMC commander. “These awards are essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space, transition the EELV program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the U.S. launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.”

This effort was carried out in support of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program for missions for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The work is set to be carried out by Orbital ATK between 2016 and 2019. The Air Force award also included the possibility of expansions, which have been valued at up to $133 million.

SpaceX's Raptor rocket engine undergoes a static test fire in this NASA image. Photo Credit: NASA / Stennis

Operators at the E-2 Test Stand at Stennis conduct a test of the oxygen pre-burner component being developed by SpaceX for its Raptor rocket engine. Caption & Photo Credit: NASA / Stennis


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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