FSDC Backs Domestic RD-180 Engine Production

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Florida Shouldn’t Miss Opportunity
With New Rocket Engine

by Florida Space Development Council

May 1, 2014 – In the late 1990s, as the Air Force settled on Delta-4 and Atlas-5 designs by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, one controversial element was the inclusion of Russian-provided RD-180 engines to power the Atlas-5. The RD-180 is by all accounts a remarkable rocket engine, a propulsion system without peer in the U.S. Concerns about the supply of these engines from Russia were addressed by a plan for Pratt & Whitney (which had partnered with Russia’s Energomash and bought engineering designs for the engine) to domestically produce the RD-180.

Their plan was to manufacture the engines at P&W’s facility in West Palm Beach, Florida. Unfortunately, due to cost concerns (and with Air Force concurrence), this plan was shelved in favor of keeping a two-year supply of the Russian-made engines on hand. According to many in Congress who support sanctions against Russia, that plan is no longer good enough. The latest Air Force budget draft for FY-2015 includes $220 million to develop a domestic alternative to the RD-180.

After a series of mergers and acquisitions, Pratt & Whitney’s rocket engine business (including manufacturing facilities in West Palm Beach) now belongs to Aerojet Rocketdyne. The West Palm plant still produces upper stage engines for both the Atlas-5 and Delta-4, and capacity still exists there for RD-180 manufacturing. With momentum building in Washington for a “domestic alternative” to the Russian engines, the Florida Space Development Council believes Florida lawmakers and economic development officials should be working now to position West Palm Beach as the location for building these engines.

  • Shaun Heath

    Is this for a domestic version of the RD-180, under license, or a clean sheet domestic alternative? If a domestic version of the RD-180, I wonder how much of a cost difference there would be, per unit.

  • larryj8

    A few weeks ago, Aviation Week reported that it would cost $1 billion to establish RD-180 production in the US. It seems the default position is that US taxpayers should foot the bill. Since this is an engine intended for use by ULA, shouldn’t they pay the cost? ULA reportedly gets a billion dollars each year over and above the high prices they charge for their rockets. What are they doing with the money?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    This is clearly a pay day ploy for ULA, but possibly it could also be used by Orbital ATK.

    They better get it designed, built and certified by the end of the year, cos the moment an F9 first stage lands back at the Cape, the RD-180 and its clones become all but obsolete.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Nothing like a sweet hart deal, get a block buy long term monopoly then subsidised development costs to build the Russian engine locally. Yet there is Falcon 9 developed and built in USA without massive subsidy able to offer the same or better service for less than half the price yet still congress gives extra money to ULA.