Manufacturers Say Congress' RD-180 Engine Replacement Program a Waste of Money (Updated)


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Two candidates to replace a Russian-made rocket engine said they don't need taxpayer dollars to complete work on a U.S. version of the RD-180.
In addition, a panel of engine makers at the Space Symposium on April 14 expressed lukewarm interest in vying for an initial $220 million pot of money Congress allocated last year to end the dependence on the Russian-made engine.

Russian manufacturer Energomash has provided rockets to boost heavy payloads into orbit to United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing partnership that provides services for national security space missions. After Russia annexed Crimea, and fears grew that Russia would cut off supplies of the engine, Congress voted to end reliance on the foreign manufacturer by 2019, and allocated the $220 million. The program may ultimately cost some $1.5 billion, experts have estimated.

Blue Origin, a relative newcomer to the space industry, has fully funded its BE-4 rocket engine, which may be integrated onto a new class of rockets manufactured by United Launch Alliance, said its President Robert Meyerson.

That isn't the case for Aerojet Rocketdyne and its AR-1 engine, said Julie Van Kleek, vice president of the company's advanced launch and space unit. It needs some government funding to pay for development of the engine, she said.

"The BE-4 is fully funded, so it should be no surprise to anyone in this room that we don't believe there needs to be a national engine program," said Meyerson. Blue Origin was founded by Amazon founder and billionaire Jeff Bezos. The government should invest in launch vehicle capabilities, he said. But prime contractors are best suited to select the engines that they need, he added.

SpaceX, which builds engines and rockets, said it has been working with the Air Force on a request for information document, said Gwynne Shotwell, the company's president and CEO. "I don't think the government should pay for an engine. I think launch providers should pay for their own engine or contract with others to build their I engines. But I do think investing in the propulsion industrial base here in the United Staes is a good idea and there is some advanced technologies that can come of this." The Air Force should fund mission unique requirements, she added.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is interested in seeing the acquisition strategy, said Van Kleek, the only panelist who said her company would compete for the pot of money. Representatives for the other launch providers, which included Orbital ATK, all said "maybe."

Meyerson said, "We'll look at it." It will depend on how the request for proposals is set up. Will it welcome private companies such as his or be slanted toward traditional government contractors? He asked.

Both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne leaders said they could complete work on their respective engine before the 2019 deadline. Both have already begun development. Meyerson said the BE-4 has been in the works for three years, and has another four years to go. Van Kleek said Aerojet Rocketdyne could wrap up work a year early in 2018.

ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno decried Congress' limit on the number of RD-180s the company could use over the next five years. The most engines it can use by law would be 14, which would be risky if neither of the two companies made the 2019 deadline. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has repeated the warning before Congress. Bruno said lawmakers should allow the company to use the RD-180 until a replacement is firmly established.

Bruno also warned that the Air Force has a delicate balancing act in the coming years as rival SpaceX is certified to provide national security launches. Spy agency and military launches will drop from about 10 to 12 per year to five. If it is mismanaged, then the competition the service wants to foster may be at risk, he said.

Shotwell agreed about the estimates but added that the more robust commercial launch market will take up the slack for the company and SpaceX is not dependent on government payloads.
ULA on April 13 formally announced its new rocket program, which it is calling the Vulcan.

The company has raised eyebrows by choosing newcomer Blue Origin's BE-4 as the primary choice for its new rocket to replace the Atlas 5. He described Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR-1 as a backup.

Blue Origin was only established in 2003 and is notoriously media shy. Today marked the first appearance on a panel by a Blue Origin executive at the annual symposium.

Meyerson admitted that his company was not well known, but that ULA had done its "due diligence" when selecting the BE-4 for its new program.

 The Vulcan program will be a family of rockets that will carry payloads from low-Earth orbit all the way to Pluto, a press release said.

Correction:  A previous version of this story stated that Aerojet Rocketdyne could pay for the new rocket with its own funds. The company will need government assistance to finish development.

Topics: Space

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