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Boeing-Lockheed venture said teaming with Bezos on rocket engine

A joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin plans to announce on Wednesday that it will team up with Blue Origin, a company run by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, to develop a new rocket engine, a source familiar with the plans said.

Officials at Boeing and Lockheed declined comment. No comment was immediately available from Blue Origin or United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing-Lockheed venture that uses Russian-built engines to power some of its rockets.

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ULA had sent out a request for information asking the U.S. aerospace industry earlier this year for ideas on how to replace the Russian-built RD-180 that powers ULA's heavy-lift Atlas 5 rockets, which are used to launch many U.S. military and spy satellites.

Jeff Bezos
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Jeff Bezos

Tensions with Russia over its actions in Ukraine have raised concerns that Russia could cut off deliveries of the RD-180 engines, according to U.S. officials, who hope to start funding work on a U.S. alternative in the Pentagon's 2016 budget.

The partnership agreement will pit Bezos against Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which is seeking certification from the Air Force for its own Falcon 9 rockets.

The certification was due to be completed by the end of this year, but may now slip into next year, according to U.S. officials. They said the process may be slowed while officials look into the recent explosion of a SpaceX experimental rocket that uses the same engine as the Falcon 9.

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SpaceX is also competing with Boeing and privately held Sierra Nevada Corp. for a NASA contract to ferry astronauts to and from the international space station.

NASA is expected to award that contract to one or more bidders on Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with the process.

Boeing is poised to win the lion's share of that work, according to The Wall Street Journal, which also reported the expected ULA teaming agreement with Bezos.

Boeing would benefit from development of a new U.S. alternate rocket engine, since its commercial crew capsule would also be launched by the Atlas 5 rocket, industry officials said.

Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall this month said U.S. officials were looking at a joint government-industry development of a U.S. rocket engine and other options to reduce U.S. reliance on Russian-built engines.

Despite the concerns, Russia has continued to deliver RD-180 engines to the United States, with two engines arriving last month and three more slated for delivery this fall.

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ULA says it has enough RD-180 engines on hand to last for two years. It has an $11 billion contract with the U.S. Air Force for 36 launches, but SpaceX, has sued in federal claims court to be allowed to compete for more of that work.

By Reuters