Air Force awards TACFI rocket engine contract to Ursa Major

By Michael Marrow / August 31, 2022 at 11:26 AM

The Air Force has awarded Ursa Major, a private rocket propulsion company, a Tactical Funding Increase contract to provide an oxygen-rich staged combustion engine, the company announced yesterday.

The $3.6 million award will support a qualification campaign, Ursa Major Chief Executive Officer Joe Laurienti wrote in response to questions from Inside Defense, which is slated to conclude by year’s end.

TACFI is an Air Force program to help small and mid-size companies bridge the “Valley of Death,” where research initiatives fail to transition to major acquisitions. The awards are also aimed at strengthening the industrial base by propping up competitors to major contractors.

Officials have recently raised alarm about the state of the space industrial base, warning that the lack of an overarching space development strategy could allow China to gain an edge over the United States. Key to that strategy will be fostering innovation and promoting competition for space technologies, officials say.

The Biden administration has also taken aggressive steps to combat consolidation of the propulsion industrial base and diversify suppliers, asserting that increased concentration of vendors could pose a risk to the Defense Department. Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin abandoned a planned merger with Aerojet Rocketdyne after the Federal Trade Commission sued to block the deal.

The Ursa Major 5,000-pound thrust “Hadley” rocket can be used for both the booster and upper-stage launch phases, the company’s announcement says, and is intended to deliver satellites into low-earth orbit.

“These engines will be used to launch satellites into low-earth orbit, but isn’t specific to a launch service provider or launcher,” Laurienti wrote. “Importantly, our business necessitates common technology being usable across a range of missions and vehicles, so this qualification campaign will encompass a broad set of objectives.”

The qualification campaign will measure the performance of several engines through ground testing, according to Laurienti, which will measure technical requirements like starts, thrust vector control and impact of environmental conditions. Results of the campaign will then be provided to the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Ursa Major was founded in 2015 and employs over 200 people, Laurienti stated, and currently has 12 government contracts, though the company was not able to share additional details.

The Hadley engine is also qualified for hypersonics and space launches, Laurienti added, and will be used by aerospace companies Phantom Space and Stratolaunch for a two-stage expendable rocket and powering a hypersonic testbed vehicle, respectively.

According to the company’s release, Ursa Major plans to deliver 30 rocket engines to customers by the end of the year.