LONDON -- Taking advantage of the U.S. government's new willingness to allow greater foreign participation in building its rockets, the European consortium Arianespace is bidding with an American partner on a $2 billion contract to design a new family of rockets, industry executives said.
The previously undisclosed bid is a big development in the highly competitive and strategically important launch business, and it gives Arianespace a shot at a market that is currently dominated by its arch-rival, Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp.
The launch vehicles, which will be constructed for the U.S. Air Force, are designed to boost spy satellites and other payloads into orbit.
Arianespace, which has dominated the commercial space-launch business in recent years, made its move as a member of a team led by Alliant Techsystems, an aerospace and technology company based in Minneapolis. Two weeks ago, the team bid for the Air Force contract to design launchers that would be the core of the nation's unmanned rocket fleet starting early in the next century.
The Air Force program is the first big effort to develop a family of launch vehicles to replace the current fleet of Atlas, Titan and Delta rockets, whose design was largely based on 1950s technology. The program comes as once-nationalistic space programs, with jealously guarded technological secrets, give way to international consortiums engaged in global technology transfers.
The United States has maintained a strict policy of launching military and other government payloads on American rockets only, shutting out Arianespace as well as Russian and Chinese launchers.
But with the new program, Washington has effectively opened the door to more extensive foreign participation, allowing a group like Arianespace to contribute a significant amount of the rocket's components.
Before this development, Lockheed Martin, which makes the Atlas and Titan rockets, was given the bulk of U.S. government business. That steady stream of work helped Lockheed Martin remain competitive as the European consortium grew to dominate the commercial-launch business, primarily handling telecommunications satellites.
Evan McCollum, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Astronautics, declined to comment beyond saying that the company is also bidding on the new project.
But in a sign of the breakdown of the industry's once-inviolate national bent, Lockheed Martin is likely to have incorporated foreign technology into its proposals in the form of engines or other hardware from Russia, industry executives said.
Further underscoring the rapid changes in the industry, a top Russian aerospace executive said in Moscow Friday that the United States was close to dropping the quota it had placed on Russian launches of commercial satellites containing American technology.