Andrews Space, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been awarded contracts to design, fabricate and test systems under the reusable booster system flight and ground experiments (RBS-FGE) programme. The contracts, awarded by the US Air Force Research Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, are worth up to $250 million each.
RBS-FGE is meant to mature technologies for a fully reusable vertical take-off, horizontal landing first stage booster system, using a liquid oxygen-fuelled combined cycle engine. The winged booster will loft the launch vehicle to the point where a second, expendable stage can fire and put the payload in orbit, while the first stage booster will return and land on a runway.
Limited flight testing is due to begin by 2015.
The RBS-FGE contracts are the first step towards replacing the current standard launch vehicles, the Lockheed Atlas V and Boeing Delta IV, which were developed in the 1990s under the evolved expendable launch vehicles (EELV) programme.
"Boeing will begin work immediately on the requirements and concepts for the RBS demonstration vehicle, called RBS Pathfinder, at the company's Huntington Beach facility," said the company. "Under the indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract, three teams will compete for a follow-on task order to develop the vehicle and conduct a flight test."
Andrews and Boeing both declined to expand upon initial award announcements, citing the competitive nature of the programme. Lockheed was not available for immediate comment.