By Joey Roulette
ORLANDO, Fl. (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force on Wednesday said that it had awarded a total $2.3 billion (£1.7 billion) in contracts to develop rocket launch systems for national security missions.
The awards go to Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin; United Launch Services, part of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) joint venture between Boeing Co (BA.N) and Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N); and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (NOC.N).
The three contracts are part of a Department of Defense initiative to assure constant military access to space and curb reliance on foreign-made rocket engines, like ULA's flagship Atlas V rocket that uses Russian-made RD-180 boosters. The contracts are to develop rockets and carry defence payloads into space.
Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Services received $967 million to develop its Vulcan rocket; Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin was awarded $500 million to build its New Glenn booster, and Northrop Grumman of Arizona received $791.6 million for its OmegA rocket.
Blue Origin's and Northrop's prototype vehicles for military launches are expected to be ready to fly by late 2024 and ULA's Vulcan rocket development should be completed by March 2025.
Blue Origin said in a statement following Wednesday's announcement that it will build a launch site at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, although it did not say what rockets would launch from the site. ULA announced in September that its Vulcan rocket will be powered by Blue's BE-4 liquid rocket engines.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette, Editing By Peter Henderson and Rosalba O'Brien)