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RACE BEGINS FOR A NEW LAUNCH VEHICLE

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Four defense companies won $30 million contracts to design competing versions of a new space launch vehicle the Air Force predicts will save billions of dollars in launch costs in the 21st century.

In 1998, one of the four contractors' designs will be selected for actual production, and the winning company could earn up to $2 billion, officials said.The new space boosters will be used to launch both military and commercial satellites. They will replace the existing Titan, Delta and Atlas space boosters, which were derived from the nation's first generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles built in the 1950s to carry nuclear warheads.

In its announcement Thursday, the Air Force said Lockheed Martin Technologies Inc. of Denver; McDonnell Douglas Aerospace of El Segundo, Calif.; Boeing Defense and Space Group of Seattle; and Alliant Technologies Inc. of Magna will split an initial $120 million for the first phase of the program.

The competition is to be narrowed to two contractors in 1997, and a single final contract for the actual manufacturing and testing of the winning design is to be awarded in 1998. The first rockets are to be ready for use in 2001; a second variant capable of launching heavier payloads is to be operational in 2005.

Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall told a Pentagon news conference that the four companies chosen were the only ones to submit bids.

"Our nation needs this program for economic and commercial reasons as well as for national defense," Widnall said. She said she had no estimate of how many new jobs the project could create.

Maj. Gen. Robert Dickman, director of space programs for the Air Force, told reporters that if existing launch systems were used to perform the missions planned for the period 2000 to 2020, the cost would be about $22.5 billion. With the newly planned launch system, that figure may be as much as 50 percent lower, he said, mainly because of lower manufacturing costs for the rockets themselves and because fewer people will be needed to perform the launches.

By reducing the cost of putting military satellites into orbit, the Air Force would make its space programs more affordable in an era of tight defense budgets and would make the U.S. launch business more competitive in the global commercial market.