A New Rocket Engine by 2019? Air Force Says No; Aerojet Rocketdyne Says Yes (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

The Air Force and the nation’s key space launch provider are expressing doubts that a deadline will be met to replace a Russian-built rocket engine needed to loft heavy national security satellites.

“I’m not sure 2019 is doable,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, one of the nation’s leading rocket engine makers, Aerojet Rocketdyne, said it is possible.

At issue is the RD-180, a first-stage engine needed to power the Atlas V rocket, which is supplied by a Russian manufacturer, NP Energomash. The crisis in Ukraine in 2014 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, and sounded an alarm in Congress.

Lawmakers responded in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act by banning the use of RD-180 engines after 2019, and allocating $220 million for the development of a replacement engine.

“We agree that it’s aggressive, but it’s doable,” said Linda Cova, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s executive director for hydrocarbon engines programs, responding to James’ comments on the 2019 deadline.

James testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee that experts with whom she had consulted say it will take six or seven years to develop the engine, plus another one or two years to integrate it into current rockets.

“So this truly is rocket science. These are hard technical problems,” she said. “To have that 2019 date there is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure we can make it.”

United Launch Alliance President Salvatore “Tory” Bruno said the company would like an easing of the 2019 deadline. ULA is a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture that provides launch services to the U.S. government, using both the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.  The company intends to phase out both its rockets and replace it with a program called the next-generation launch system, Bruno told the publication Space News.

The Delta IV is capable of launching heavy payloads but is more expensive.

The cost of launching rockets is a factor as ULA’s monopoly on government contracts is seemingly coming to an end. Upstart SpaceX is expected to have its smaller Falcon 9 rocket certified for government launches this year and is proceeding with a larger version, the Falcon Heavy.

This creates a scenario where SpaceX may have a competitive advantage over ULA after 2019 if the incumbent is no longer allowed to use the RD-180 and a certified replacement is not available, James told reporters after the hearing, according to Space News.

It would be an ironic turn of events if that were the case. SpaceX only recently settled a lawsuit with the Air Force after it accused the service of delaying certification of its rockets and freezing it out of national security launch contracts.

There are currently two possibilities to replace the RD-180.

ULA is partnering with Blue Origins, a Kent, Washington-based startup owned by founder Jeff Bezos, to develop the BE-4 engine.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is proposing the AR-1.

A Blue Origins spokeswoman declined to provide comment.

“Developing a new engine by 2019 is an aggressive schedule, and the existing law leaves us no flexibility,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said in a written response to questions.

“Secretary James made clear that changes or clarification of existing law is necessary because the law currently drives out competition in the near-term. Committee members also pointed out the need for clarification because the current interpretation eliminates real competition,” Rye said.

“The secretary of the Air Force accurately pointed out that the United States cannot afford a gap in the nation’s launch capability,” she said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne executives in a 2014 interview with National Defense and more recently asserted that the company could deliver a rocket by the deadline.

“There’s precedent for it. We’ve done it in the past and we’re confident that we can have [a qualified] engine ready in 2019,” Cova said in an interview.

“We’ve been working on it in earnest since August with ULA, and we’ve gotten through systems requirement review, and we’re continuing to do work progressing towards having an engine ready in 2019,” she added.

The Air Force and ULA took part in the review, she noted.

Aerojet Rocketdyne has already completed hot-fire tests of some of the AR-1 engine’s components.

“The single-element main injector hot-fire tests were conducted to evaluate various main injector element designs and fabrication methods,” a company statement said. “Several injectors were fabricated using selective laser melting, a form of additive manufacturing.”

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, enables the rapid production of complex engine components at a fraction of the cost of those produced using traditional manufacturing techniques, the statement said. 

Completion of a vehicle-level system concept review and a main propulsion system preliminary design review are major milestones planned for 2015, it added.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne is committed to delivering an RD-180 replacement by 2019, which is why the company is investing in the engine and inviting the Air Force, ULA and other key stakeholders to all major reviews so that engine certification can occur in parallel,” Cova said in the statement.

Another question is whether the Air Force and Congress will make good on the necessary funding, analysts pointed out. The $220 million allocated in 2015 is just a fraction of what will be needed, they have said.

Bruno in the Space News article said about half of the estimated $1 billion in development money needed would come from private equity, with the other half from the government.

Barry Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said: “The Air Force, as I understand it, doesn’t think it has the money for this program,” even though it may amount to only a couple hundred million dollars, he said in an email. Budget “caps and budgetary uncertainty may be the biggest threats to demonstrating a new engine by 2019,” he added.

“But beyond budgets and our red-tape-ridden acquisition system, I don’t see any reasons why a 2019 deadline couldn’t be met. Bezos’ Blue Origin has actually tested a new engine. So the commercial space industry might get the job done even if DoD can’t,” he said, referring to the smaller BE-3.

Daniel Gouré, vice president of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank, said he firmly believes that James and ULA are wrong about industry not being capable of meeting the 2019 deadline.

It can be done. But whether it takes four years, seven years, or longer, it must be accomplished. The nation simply can’t continue to depend on an engine manufactured by a hostile nation that can turn off the supply at any time, he said.

“The idea that somehow the relationship with Russia will normalize, that this will all blow over is ludicrous,” he said.

Rye said: “The secretary stated that a clarification in the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act is needed in order to ensure the nation responsibly ends the use of the RD-180 engine while bringing online a domestic alternative in a way that does not impact the launch of our national security payloads.”

Gouré said the Air Force may simply be getting cold feet over funding. But the same amount of money it would cost to procure more RD-180 engines from Russia — perhaps $2 billion — could be invested in the new engine.

The Air Force needs to take the $220 million Congress has allotted so far and invest it in development so it can buy down some of the technological risk, he said.

SpaceX’s Merlin engine on its smaller Falcon rockets is another possible entrant, he said.

Blue Origins, SpaceX and Aerojet Rocketdyne are all investing their own funding to develop engines. None of them have one that can be taken “off the shelf” and integrated onto an Atlas, but all the private equity that has been put into development is a great advantage for the Air Force, Gouré noted. The only question now is: who can develop a reliable rocket first and at a reasonable price?

William A. LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said during a House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces hearing March 17, that the service was working on a request for proposals for a public-private partnership to be released in the spring.

“The objective of 2019 is very aggressive, and it does not result in what is ultimately required, a launch vehicle and the supporting infrastructure so the Air Force can order launch services from industry,” LaPlante said, reiterating James’ comments.

An engine “starting from scratch” would take an estimated eight to 10 years to develop and integrate. It will require an all-new rocket and it won’t be possible to simply swap it into the Atlas V, he said. LaPlante then went on to describe a four-step program that would result in full and open competitions using U.S.-made engines as early as 2020 and as late as 2024, which suggested it could take less than five years.

Aerojet Rocketdyne executives are quick to point out that its AR-1 is not “starting from scratch.” The company has worked with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory for a number of years to develop next-generation rockets. It released photos of hot-fire tests of some of the AR-1 components the day before LaPlante testified. 

Gouré said: “If the companies think they can do it, if everybody is putting in their own money, then it is time for the Air Force to just get on with it. You couldn’t be in a better position,” he said.

SpaceX declined to provide a comment on its intentions, although at the March 17 hearing its president and CEO, Gwynne Shotwell, testified the company intended to use its own funding to develop a new Raptor engine, which she said will be the most powerful in the world. Meanwhile, she said the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets will be able to meet all national security space launch needs, indicating that the company preferred to be a launch provider rather than a supplier of engines to ULA.

Gouré said a competition will not only end dependency on Russian engines, it will build up the U.S. industrial base. “We’re off to the races in 2019 and then … the Russians can suck lemons.”

ULA, since it is the prime contractor for the larger launch system, may ultimately be the one to select which engine it will put aboard its new rocket.

The decision should be taken out of its hands, Gouré said.

“From a strategic point of view, this may be the most important procurement the Air Force has to address for the rest of this decade,” he said, noting that he includes the long-range bomber and F-35 in that equation.

“This may make a difference between us having real access to space and limited access to space for national security,” he said.

Updated with new information from a March 17 House Armed Services Committee Hearing.

Topics: Space

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