AIR FORCE NEWS
Air Force Enters Uncharted Acquisition Territory for RD-180 Rocket Engine Program
Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 called into question the U.S. government’s reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine to launch national security space satellites. Congress responded with $220 million to kickstart a U.S. made engine, but with strings attached. It must be an open competition, and it must be a joint effort between the government and industry. Congress said dependence on the RD-180 must also end by 2019.
Gen. John E. Hyten, Air Force Space Command commander, said requests for information went out to industry April 24. A request for proposals will be released by the end of May.
“We’re asking the industry to define that public-private partnership, to build through a preliminary design review, [and] plan to develop prototypes and capabilities so we can decide where we want to go in the future,” he told reporters April 28. The U.S. government does not own rockets anymore, he noted. It buys launches as a service. It cannot simply dictate — as it would in a traditional acquisition program — what requirements it wants and when they need to be delivered. Launch providers make the decisions on the rocket’s components.
“It really is a difficult acquisition strategy,” he said. The RFP will not just be seeking engine solutions, but it will want to know what partnerships industry intends to form.
The space launch industry is fundamentally different — and much healthier — than it was in the past, Hyten said. “That’s the good news. But it is a very complicated industry.”
Players include: United Launch Alliance — a Boeing Lockheed Martin joint venture and the incumbent provider; billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which builds its own engines and rockets, and OrbitalATK, two companies that recently merged. There a two engine manufacturers, AerojetRocketdyne, with roots going back to the beginning of the space age, and Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos less than a decade ago.
The assumption was that the U.S. would proceed with a kerosene-based engine, Hyten said. ULA announced in the midst of this controversy that it would team up with Blue Origin to use a methane-based engine rather than a kerosene engine. With the risk of developing a new methane engine, ULA wants to have a backup kerosene-based engine produced by AerojetRocketdyne.
To further complicate matters, AerojetRocketdyne said it will need U.S. government funds to proceed with development of an RD-180 replacement. Space entrepreneurs Bezos and Musk have been clear in conversations with Hyten that they don’t need or want U.S. government money to develop their rockets.
“It will be very interesting to see what partnerships we get back from industry,” Hyten said. “The law Congress passed last year not only gave us much needed money, it also put some very important restrictions on it. One of which was full and open competition with an engine that is available to anybody.”
The alliances the companies will form are currently unknown. “It’s almost an impossible to predict right now … but in two months it will be clearer,” Hyten said.
Another question Hyten couldn’t answer was how a company that used taxpayer money to fund its engine would be weighed in a competition against a company that used its own internal research and development dollars. He is not in the Air Force acquisition chain of command, he noted.
Many other questions remain on how this effort will reshape the launch industry, Hyten said. One of the major ones is whether industry will be able to deliver a new engine by 2019. AerojetRocketdyne executives have said — given the funding — that they can finish work and certify the AR-1 engine by then.
The Air Force in June asked for $40 million in reprogrammed money to begin risk reduction and technology development. Most of it is now obligated through NASA and Air Force Research Laboratory contracts, Hyten said. Congress allocated an additional $220 million in 2015. Another $30 million of that pot is being used to start the effort. It will take an estimated $1 billion to develop the new rocket, experts have said.
“That doesn’t give you a rocket by ‘19, it gives you an engine by ‘19,” Hyten said. It will take two more years to fully integrate and certify it. “I’m not going to put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket with an engine that has never flown before.”
The Air Force has asked Congress to amend the language to allow ULA to use RD-180 engines from about 2018-2022 as it works through the second phase of the program. “We don’t want anything beyond that,” Hyten said.
Ultimately, the Air Force must have two competitors to guarantee assured access to space. “If I’m buying launch as a service, how do I then make sure I still have access to space in this commercial partnership?” Hyten asked.
“If one provider is 5 percent cheaper than the other, and both are equally effective, you still have to keep the second operator in business,” he said. There will have to be launches carved out for the second provider to meet the national policy objectives. “That’s a very complicated business arrangement that we’re going to have to work out with our partners.”
Hyten also questioned what will happen if one of the providers has a failure. Historically, it has taken about one to two years to determine what happened and how to remedy it. During those two years, the other provider will have all the business and the one that suffered the failure will have no revenue.
“We’re going to have to write in the contract what we’re going to do when we have a failure,” he said. What will be written in to assure one remains solvent is unknown, he said.
The Air Force has already received the certification request from ULA for its recently announced Vulcan family of rockets and SpaceX for its Falcon 9 Heavy, he said.
“You can’t make a decision today based on what the launch industry is going to be in 2019. We can’t,” Hyten said.
As for Blue Origin, Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Heavy: “All of those have very significant technical challenges they still have to work through,” he said.
ULA wants a methane-based engine, which has been the holy grail of the rocket business. “It looks great at 10,000-pound thrust level. It burns hot and clean and the pressure is amazing. The problem is when you scale it. The pressure continues to scale.”
As for AerojetRocketdyne’s engine, the United States has never built a large kerosene engine, Hyten noted. OrbitalATK is leaning toward a kerosene engine as well, he noted.
“For us to get there in four years, it would be an enormous technical achievement. We have to get on with it,” Hyten said.