Space Command: U.S Will Need More Russian RD-180 Engines (UPDATED)

By Allyson Versprille

Graham Kilmer

U.S space agencies must complete the purchase of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines until a domestically produced equivalent is ready for use, the head of U.S. Space Command said June 26.

"Without access to the RD-180 ... we severely limit our assured access [to space], undermine the competition we have worked so diligently to enable and will have traded one monopoly for another in the medium and intermediate vehicle classes," Gen. John Hyten said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. 

Congress has prohibited the use of the Russian-made engines for heavy lift rockets after 2019. Industry is working to produce a domestic version, but there are concerns that a replacement will not be ready in time. That may leave SpaceX, founded by billionaire Elon Musk, alone in offering heavy lift services if its Falcon Heavy is developed by then.

“If the current law is not modified, America will not have assured access to space and competition will have been unintentionally eliminated, giving the new entrant a monopoly,” Tory Bruno, President and CEO United Launch Alliance, said referring to launch provider SpaceX.

The nine RD-180 rocket engines available will not ensure access to space for the United States national security needs, said Hyten. He supported the Defense Department request to fulfill the 2012 purchase of additional RD-180 rocket engines in order to allow ULA to participate competitively until a new launch system is available to deliver necessary space capabilities.

Federal law requires two independent providers of launch systems for access to space. ULA manufactured Atlas V — which uses the Russian made RD-180 engine — and Delta IV launch systems currently carry two-thirds of U.S. national security payloads.

ULA needs the originally allocated 29 RD-180s in order to maintain business viability until a replacement launch engine can be certified in 2019, said Bruno.

“As senior Russian leaders have noted numerous times, they can cut off the supply of the RD-180 engine the United States at will,” said Jeffrey Thornburg SpaceX senior director of propulsion engineering. The Falcon 9 launch system, produced domestically by SpaceX, is certified to handle the “highest-value national security payloads,” said Thornburg.

Bruno took the opportunity to criticize rival SpaceX. Congress should examine the company's prior failures to fulfill promises made about its technology, said Bruno.

“The space and business press is awash in stories that chronicle the history of SpaceX over-promising and under-delivering on both cost and schedule,” said Bruno.

Thornburg noted that SpaceX's Falcon 9 was recently certified to carry national security payloads and said that its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is still under development, will as well. Both are domestically manufactured, he noted.

Hyten said Market competition and government support should be able to deliver an U.S. engine by fiscal year 2019, and two certified launch systems by fiscal year 2022.

The U.S government is responsible for almost all of the demand for rockets which used to maintain the U.S national security space capabilities, said former NASA administrator Michael Griffin. “The vagaries of the market cannot be allowed to determine whether or not critical payloads make it to space in a timely fashion,” he said.

An American funded and owned engine equivalent to the RD-180 should be produced, “as quickly as we can possibly do so,” said Griffin.

NASA provided SpaceX with $3.5 billion in funding for seven launches, said Griffin. That points to either incredible costs associated with launch, or large sums of that money have gone toward “capitalizing” the company, he said.

“I very strongly believe that government money, which has been provided to SpaceX has in fact gone for the development of Falcon 9,” said Griffin.

The NASA program funding was focused on the Dragon space capsule, while the Falcon 9 program was funded by SpaceX, countered Thornburg.

Correction: Corrected placement of clause in paragraph 6 to reflect that only the Atlas V, not the Delta IV, uses the RD-180 engine.

Topics: Space

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