Northrop Grumman leases part of VAB for assembling Omega rocket


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Northrop Grumman has become the first private company to lease a bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, where it will its new OmegA rocket.

Northrop Grumman will assemble and test its new OmegA rocket inside the massive facility’s High Bay 2, one of four high bays in the building. … The company also is modifying mobile launcher platform-3 (MLP-3) to serve as the launch vehicle’s assembly and launch platform. Both the VAB and MLP-3 were originally built for the Apollo Program and went on to enable the three-decade Space Shuttle Program.

OmegA’s development is being funded by an $800 million contract with the Air Force.

In many ways, I could ask the exact same question here as I just did in the post below about the Chinese government’s pseudo private launch industry: From an American private enterprise perspective, this Air Force attempt to create a commercial launch industry using government funds but tight government supervision and control is very puzzling. OmegA will be competing directly with other American launch companies that are privately funded, owned, and run by private corporations (though also getting significant government contracts for their already operational products). How the federal government prevents its government agencies (NASA, the Air Force) from putting their thumbs on the scale to favor one over the other I do not understand.

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6 comments

  • David

    For the Chinese, I suspect they don’t even attempt to keep their fingers off the scale, that kind of top down control is a feature, not a bug, in their system. On the US side, we have a conflict between those who think the Govt needs to have that kind of direction, and those who believe it should be entirely free and market driven. So there is a thumb on the scale, but only sometimes, and usually hidden from view.

  • mike shupp

    Not a whole lot of companies building military aircraft anymore or even with the capability for building military aircraft. Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop is about it, and only Boeing has the capability to build both military and commercial aircraft.

    Let me take back a bit of that. Boeing doesn’t build wings itself for its transports anymore — they’ve farmed that out to Japan. And I think the electronics have gone off to Europe. And Northrop hasn’t pushed out a whole lot of planes for a while — they’re supposed to be turning out B-21 bombers in 2024, to replace existing %-2s and B-1s and B-52s, and we can hope that goes more smoothly than Lockheed’s F-35 program.

    Used to be an industry. There were about a dozen companies building military aircraft when I started college, another dozen or so specialized in commercial transports or took subcontracts from the majors. Employed a batch of people – there were just under 300 thousand people in aerospace in Los Angeles county back about 1989, I’ve read.

    And we gave it away. Military spending had run to about 11% of GNP during the Eisenhower years, then dropped to about 8% when Apollo 11 reached the Moon, despite the ongoing war in View Nam. You could blame that on liberals — poor old Richard Nixon had to cut NASA down to size (and basically give up in Viet Nam) because that vicious mean old LBJ started so many welfare schemes like Medicare and Model Cities that conservatives just couldn’t give up. And by the end of the Bill Clinton era, military spending was down to 3% of GNP and it took the total cooperation of both the second Bush administration and a bunch of adventurous Arabs to build that back to the mighty 3.5% of GNP that sustains American preeminence today. And keeps almost 90,000 people in LA working in aerospace anymore! So glorious!

    Okay, I’m being sarcastic. But you can sort of see why the Air Force and NASA are being a bit ….soliticious …. of Northrop. The country NEEDS Northrop after all. It keeps our fire and our flame and our great military heritage alive, not to mention our ability to blow up stuff all over the Middle East. SpaceX isn’t doing of this stuff, nor is Blue Origin or Rocket Lab or any other wannabe launcher company you can think of. And that’ll still be the case ten years from now, or maybe even fifty.

  • Dick Eagleson

    The thumb on the scale anent the LAS Phase 2 “competition” for DoD space launch dollars is about as well-hidden as a burning metro bus in the middle of Wilshire Blvd. Said thumb is resting firmly on the ULA quadrant of the balance.

    It takes the form of USAF’s otherwise inexplicable desire – after having gone through a long charade in which three companies, including ULA, got over $2 billion in gov’t. funds to develop new rockets – to now choose just two of the total of four companies in the overall competition as winners. And to do so before any of the three companies which are still designing their entries – including at least one of the two winners – even has its rocket built and tested. It’s even theoretically possible two such “paper rockets” will be chosen. In any event, the two losers will get any of their yet-to-be-spent award money from Phase 1 of the “competition” instantly cancelled.

    The betting is that the two selectees will be SpaceX and ULA, the two incumbents. By arbitrarily capping the awards at two, ULA, whose new rocket will be expendable, is saved from having to compete directly on price with Blue Origin, whose new rocket is to have a reusable 1st stage.

    Some see a chance for NGIS and ULA to be the two selectees. That seems quite a stretch. Neither company has yet to build and fly their proposed rockets. So, if USAF does this, it’s putting all of the nation’s national security launch eggs in two baskets that haven’t yet been woven. In order to do this, both companies with extant or planned reusable rockets would need to be stiff-armed.

    Sadly, there seem to be elements in both the Congress and the USAF procurement swamp depraved enough to actually consider such a course. One has to hope there are still at least a few high-mileage senators from states that have no dog in this fight to keep their colleague, Sen. Shelby, and the USAF procurement staffers of easy virtue from potentially hanging the nation’s national security space launch capability so thoroughly out to dry. One also hopes that a collateral lesson from such a flagrant placing of parochial local interests above those of the nation – should such occur – would be to stand up the proposed Space Force as a fully independent service branch entirely severed from USAF.

  • Edward

    mike shupp noted: “Not a whole lot of companies building military aircraft anymore or even with the capability for building military aircraft. Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop is about it, … Used to be an industry. There were about a dozen companies building military aircraft when I started college, another dozen or so specialized in commercial transports or took subcontracts from the majors

    This reduction in the industry is the result of the “peace dividend” that we got because we won the Cold War. In the early 1990s, the Pentagon called together most of the heads of the military contractors, sat them down in a room, asked them to look to their right, then to their left, because in a few years two of them would be gone. The military-industrial complex was downsized so that we now have very little competition for any given military project. If you need to get something done, there’s a limited number of companies to ask.

    My impression at the time was that the Pentagon didn’t care how the shakeout ended, no thumb on the scale, but there was going to be a lot of consolidation — or insolvency — because there would not be enough variety of contracts, anymore, to support many different companies. Some companies merged, resulting in “hyphenated” names (except without the actual hyphens), other companies outright bought the competition, resulting in the loss of the heritage of some of the great companies of yore.

    I only hope that the Pentagon (meaning the Air Force) does not mess up commercial space in a similar way, leaving only a very few launch companies to provide future services with little additional competition. They had allowed Lockheed Martin and Boeing to combine into a monopoly for Air Force launches, only to end up watching launch costs climb.

  • David

    I’ve actually seen it argued, with some merit, that selecting ULA and NGIS is actually the sensible, conservative thing for the USAF to do. After all, SpaceX and Blue Origin will survive just fine without those contracts, so by giving the money to NGIS and ULA, they theoretically have four functioning space launch providers available, whereas if the funds go to SpaceX and Blue Origin, NGIS and ULA might well fold.

  • M Puckett

    The answer lies in keeping up the volume of solid fuel production as well as maintaining that segment of the industrial base and skillset.

    This is money that will come back to the DOD in reduced future costs for solid-fueled rockets and missiles. The ice cream cone self-licks.

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