NASA, Air Force Haggle Over Cost Sharing on New Engine

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RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Space News reports on the progress of a program that could lead to a replacement for Atlas V’s Russian-supplied first stage engine:

Negotiations on a proposal in which NASA and the U.S. Air Force would jointly fund an Aerojet-led propulsion project that could pave the way for a U.S. alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine are bogged down over cost sharing issues, according to government and industry officials.

The impasse centers on how much funding the Air Force would provide for tests Aerojet has proposed as part of a program aimed at upgrading NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) crew and cargo rocket. Aerojet is one of four companies NASA selected in July to work on liquid- and solid-fueled booster concepts meant to improve SLS’s lift capacity and affordability.

When it debuts in 2017, SLS will rely on a pair of five-segment solid-rocket boosters and a cluster of four RS-25 engines — both remnants of the retired space shuttle program — to haul 70 metric tons to orbit. NASA plans to eventually add advanced boosters and a new upper stage to increase SLS’s hauling capacity to 130 metric tons.

Having set aside $200 million for a 30-month SLS Advanced Booster Engineering Demonstration and Risk Reduction effort, NASA announced Oct. 1 that it had signed contracts with Utah-based ATK Launch Systems; Huntsville, Ala.-based Dynetics; and Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. The combined value of the awards is $137.3 million.

Conspicuously absent from the mix was Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet, one of the three main U.S. rocket propulsion providers.

Negotiations with Aerojet are continuing. Read the full story.