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Costs, Benefits of RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement Program Debated 

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By Stew Magnuson 

The U.S. national security space community was left wondering this spring whether a Russian company would continue to supply it with engines needed to launch heavy payloads on its Atlas rockets.

At issue was the RD-180, a first-stage engine needed to power the Atlas V. The crisis in Ukraine sparked a series of tit-for-tat sanctions between Russia and the United States. A statement from senior Russian leadership that the nation would stop supplying the Russian-built engine to the United States for military purposes highlighted U.S. dependence on the engine for Atlas V launches.

“Relying on Russian engines to launch satellites for our national security missions has always been bad policy,” Rep. C. A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Md., and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Language in the fiscal year 2015 defense authorization bill would provide $220 million to kickstart domestic production of a new first-stage rocket engine, which would replace the RD-180.

That would only be a small down payment in an effort that would take several years and about $1.5 billion, experts interviewed said.

“An engine as powerful as that is a fairly complex undertaking and there would be a lot of work involved,” said Jeff Foust, senior analyst at Futron Corp., a Bethesda, Maryland-based consultancy firm, which specializes in space business.

Concerns about the RD-180 supply prior to the Ukraine crisis sparked the Pentagon to form the RD-180 study group to look at the options. Chaired by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. H. J. “Mitch” Mitchell, now head of the Aerospace Corp., and co-chaired by former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, the board members concluded that “impacts of an RD-180 loss are significant, and near term (fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2017) options to mitigate them are significant.”

The report has not been released to the public, but a PowerPoint with its key conclusions was posted on the Scribd website.

The document goes into the history of how the U.S. space agencies found themselves in their current predicament. It goes back to the beginnings of the evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV) program in the 1990s when the Air Force was funding Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas — which later merged with Boeing — to produce a new generation of rockets. The Defense Department wanted competition for launch contracts and to produce more reliable rockets.

Lockheed Martin for its Atlas III and V rockets chose the RD-180, built by NPO Energomash, as its first-stage engine.

The reason was simple, said Foust. The engine was simply the best in the world. “There is nothing like the RD-180 available from U.S. or other western companies. It really is a very high quality engine,” he said.

There have been 50 consecutive successful launches since the RD-180 has been adopted through April 2014, the so-called Mitchell report noted. When an unsuccessful launch can mean losing a multi-billion dollar satellite and putting national security space programs back several years, the U.S. agencies place a high premium on reliability, Foust noted.

There was an added incentive to keep Russian engineers employed building these rockets for the U.S. market, and not supplying their know-how to North Korean or Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile programs, Foust said.

Meanwhile, United Launch Alliance, which offers Atlas V rockets for Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office and NASA payloads, has about two years of RD-180 engines in its stockpile.

The current launch manifest and way of procuring rockets from Russia is the “best value,” the Mitchell report said. Any changes will cost taxpayers more money, it said.

The Atlas V comprises 56 percent of the launch manifest through fiscal year 2020, it noted.

Foust said there will have to be a lot of rejiggering of the manifest if Russia were to cut off sales and the stockpile ran out. The Delta IV, which was produced for the EELV program by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing, can loft heavy payloads to orbit. It is even capable of launching heavier payloads than the Atlas. It is not as reliable as the Atlas V, and costs more, he added.

“The question is: What would they do if the RD-180 supply is interrupted?” Foust asked. Who would have priority and for what missions?

The deal to buy RD-180 rockets included a license to co-produce them domestically, Foust noted. But that never happened.

The Mitchell report details a series of waivers and policy changes that resulted in the domestic version of the engine being pushed back indefinitely.

“The high cost and time involved in doing it, and the fact that the engines were readily available and relatively inexpensive, kept pushing back those plans,” Foust said.

One option is to go through with co-production. The license is valid until 2022, he noted.

Todd Harrison, senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that isn’t a viable alternative.

“That option may be kind of dead because we would spend five years using the license learning how to make the engines. So that would be 2019 at the earliest, and it would likely take a little longer,” he said in an interview. After the license expired, “we would be at the mercy of the Russians again.”

The next option is to ramp up the development and production of a completely new engine, a proposal that has some support in Congress, despite the time and money it would entail.

Ruppersberger said: “Congress must act immediately to fund a plan that encourages American innovation to finally break us of our reliance on Russian engines.”

The House Armed Services Committee in early May amended the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act with language that would start some kind of replacement program.

“The Secretary of Defense shall develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine that enables the effective, efficient and expedient transition from the use of non-allied space launch engines to a domestic alternative for national security space launches,” the bill stated. It has not gone to appropriators, nor has similar language been introduced in the Senate.

Lawmakers and experts interviewed are confident that U.S. industry could produce its own engine. How long it would take, and how much money would be needed is up for debate.

Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command commander, told reporters at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in May that “there have been several estimates on that. One has been that it would take five years; one that it would take as much as eight years. I think we don’t really know that until we get into the work to see how much of a technological challenge it will be.”

As for NASA, all of ULA’s efforts to certify a rocket for human spaceflight has centered on the Atlas V. The agency would have to start all over again with the Delta IV, which would involve “a fair amount of engineering work,” Foust said.

Harrison said there are three options: use the license to produce a domestic co-produced RD-180, begin work on a new rocket or let the situation play itself out.

“We could take the risk of still relying on the Russian engine and maybe they sell it to us and maybe they don’t. … That doesn’t cost anything extra except risk,” he added.

Both co-production and new-start options are costly. Numbers being bandied about say five years and $1.2 billion, Foust said.

Harrison said it wouldn’t be all that much more to choose the new start option over using the license. “There is risk in trying to replicate and build the same engine. We might not be able to do it.”

As for a new start, it might only be another $300 million, he said. “And then we would have use of that new motor indefinitely.”

Shelton said he brought up the funding issue to lawmakers.

“When I expressed that reservation to Congress they said, ‘You don’t worry about that. You tell us what you need and we’ll worry about the money,’ So my response to that was, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of advanced space and launch propulsion at rocket manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne, said her company has studied the issue extensively and concluded that it could begin producing an RD-180 replacement in less than four years and for about $1 billion.

“There are other people with other opinions,” she told National Defense. “Our numbers are based on a very sound database of both historical data as well as analytical models that help us predict what these things will cost.”

It’s important to remember that the development wouldn’t start from a clean sheet, she noted. The Air Force and NASA over the past decade have funded research-and-development looking at new rocket engine processes and technologies. The two companies, which merged last year, have also spent their own internal R&D funding over the years.

“The technology, I think for the most part, is on hand. There aren’t technological breakthroughs required. From our perspective, it’s an engineering problem,” she said.

Those numbers would depend on a steady stream of funding from Congress. “Funding constraints may force a different length of time,” she noted.

The trickiest part will be combustion, where the liquid fuel is transformed into hot gas, she said. There will have to be robust designs in place before the program gets started, she said.

It would also have to be decided how much new emerging processes, such as additive manufacturing, will be a part of the program. Those can make the engine more affordable, but there is some risk integrating them into a new program, she added.

Foust said estimates of how long the program will take and how much it will cost must be taken with a grain of salt. “As is often the case with aerospace programs in general, you may have an initial schedule and budget estimate, but you may exceed both during the course of the program itself.”

Harrison agreed: the first cost and schedule estimates are routinely exceeded.

“It will almost always cost more and take longer,” he said.

“Realistically, a new engine may take six to seven years and cost around $2 billion,” he said.

The Mitchell report said a new launch vehicle could be certified by 2023.

These are long-term solutions to a near- and medium-term problem the Mitchell report said. The Delta program cannot ramp up production in time to take up the slack, it said. Using up the RD-180 stockpile with no replacement will result in nine missions being delayed at an average of two years. There would have to be discussions on how to prioritize missions among the Defense Department, the NRO, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and ULA’s commercial customers.

“Major perturbations require interagency discussions,” the report said.

The Delta backlog would not be cleared up until fiscal year 2019, the report said.

Another factor is the rise of billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is seeking to certify its new Falcon 9 rocket and then its Falcon Heavy version.


Harrison said the Air Force could try to speed up qualification of SpaceX’s vehicle and maybe other launch vehicles they would like to get into the market.

The report, which identifies SpaceX as the “new entrant,” said it did not expect it to be certified until 2017. The current schedule to do so by 2015 is “aggressive,” it said.

The study group made several recommendations to mitigate the rocket engine shortfalls, but ultimately suggested that it move forward with a new engine.

“Regardless of RD-180 viability, [the] U.S. needs to develop a domestic engine,” the PowerPoint stated.

Harrison said the industrial capacity and capability to make an engine as reliable as the RD-180 exists in the United States. He didn’t think SpaceX would want to jump in. It would prefer to compete for the entire launch contract rather than one component, he said.

Van Kleeck said a new program would come at a perfect time. Baby boomer engineers are retiring, and a new generation is replacing them. This would be a good opportunity for them to pass on their knowledge to a new generation.

“To actually go through a rocket engine development is a different set of processes and experience,” she said. A new-start engine would accelerate the learning and development of the next generation, she added.

Shelton said: “Personal opinion. I would love to see us produce an engine. If you look at our history, when is the last time we produced an engine? It has been a long time. So our industrial base has kind of withered a bit.”

Photo Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne
Reader Comments

Re: Costs, Benefits of RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement Program Debated

JANNAF requires SIX flights for certification, see "Test and Evaluation Guideline for Liquid Rocket Engines" (http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a554916.pdf). Elon Musk had better learn how to read, or hire someone who can. Not knowing the rules = FAIL.

Craig D on 07/08/2014 at 01:43

Re: Costs, Benefits of RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement Program Debated

Craig D, The first and second stages for the three launches in question were the same. The first launch has already been accepted as meeting the criterion and the latter two are awaiting confirmation for certification.
Dragonet says: Only the payloads were changed to confuse the innocent.

Arnie T on 06/18/2014 at 13:52

Re: Costs, Benefits of RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement Program Debated

SpaceX has flown three rockets named the same thing, but in three different engine configurations. To the certification people, that is three different variants of the same rocket, to Elon Musk, it is enough to qualify his engine. Guess which of those two parties writes the certification rules?

Craig D on 06/17/2014 at 16:36

Re: Costs, Benefits of RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement Program Debated

By the tone of this article I cab tell that America is in worse shape than I thought. The reality is that the aerospace sector has become so bloated with overhead burden and risk adverse that they can no longer even make simple decisions with out a year of trade space studies. The RD-180 is and will continue to be a choke point between the two governments, although ULA may have better luck negotiating as a business with clear monetary direction than the US Gov/DoD.The Delta is a Boeing product but part of ULA. The article states that Delta production could not be ramped up quick enough to cover Atlas manifests. Why not, via license, allow Lockheed to coproduce Delta as a interim solution since so many feel the Atlas will effectively be phased out due to the RD-180 limitation. The real answer is to produce a new engine from scratch that is probably methane. It should be created by a new company set up from scratch to eliminate the overhead bloat of most defense contractors. The development should not be via normal FAR cost plus contracts where virtually everything is allowable and abused. Let young engineers loose to innovate with the expertise of older experts hired from other companies. Share the resulting design with the other companies for competitive pricing.

Thomas Hanley on 06/17/2014 at 15:31

Re: Costs, Benefits of RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement Program Debated

Todd Harrison offers what he thinks is SpaceX opinion and point of view. My question is, why was SpaceX not invited to express their own opinion, insight and perspective. Maybe they wouldn't join the conversation, but maybe they would. Also, I read Musk express his opinion that Falcon 9 v1.1 was expected to be certified by the end of this year (2014). 2017???

Arnie T on 06/17/2014 at 15:17

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