Aviation Week reports on the impact of Russia banning the export of RD-180 engines for use in the Atlas V rocket:
An influential government commission is recommending the quick start of a new liquid oxygen (LOx)/hydrocarbon engine program not only as a measure to mitigate an Atlas V gap if Russia cuts off its supply of RD-180 engines to the U.S., but also to provide an alternative to the Delta IV in nearly a decade.
The group was hastily gathered earlier this year to look at the effects of a supply problem with the Russian RD-180 once tensions began to mount with the U.S. over the Crimea and Ukraine crisis. Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Howard Mitchell, now an Aerospace Corp. executive, led the commission with former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin as deputy chair, and its findings are being well received by Air Force leadership, according to industry sources. Though not made public, the findings are included in a summary briefing obtained by Aviation Week.
With Atlas slated to assume 56% of the manifest through 2020, an RD-180 shortage would cause payload delivery delays despite options existing today to mitigate them, the commission finds. These delays appear more severe than officials at United Launch Alliance and the Air Force have indicated thus far. Both have pointed to the ability to dual-manifest Atlas V payloads (shift them to the Delta IV) as a mitigation, but the commission finds that even in doing so, there could be delays and a high price….
The immediate thorny issue is that Altas V has 38 launches on the manifest with only 16 RD-180s in the U.S. inventory, and supply is in question. The engine is made by NPO Energomash and sold to United Launch Alliance (which manages Atlas V and Delta IV) through the RD Amross joint venture with Pratt & Whitney; Pratt is in the process of transferring the end user license to Aerojet Rocketdyne as it is getting out of the launch business.
A shift of 22 missions would call for an increase in Delta IV production and even in doing so the backlog for this rocket would not be met until fiscal 2019, they say in their briefing.
Meanwhile, Congress has gotten into the act by placing funds in the 2015 defense budget for the development of a replacement engine:
In the wake of a blue-ribbon panel’s report urging the U.S. government to develop a domestic replacement for the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine, the Senate Armed Services Committee drafted a 2015 defense authorization bill that provides $100 million for that purpose.
The bill, details of which were released May 22, calls for an American-made liquid rocket engine to be produced by no later than 2019, and in addition to the funding provided in 2015 it authorizes the Pentagon to spend $20 million this year on the effort. The bill also directs the Pentagon to stop using Russian-built engines once it launches all of the missions covered under an $11 billion contract with Denver-based United Launch Alliance for 36 rocket cores, provided a reasonably priced U.S. alternative is available.
That U.S. Air Force contract includes a mix of cores for ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is powered by the RD-180, and the Delta 4, which has a U.S.-built main engine. Those vehicles currently launch the vast majority of U.S. national security payloads, although other companies, notably Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, are trying to break into the market.
The House of Representatives on May 21 passed its version of the bill, providing $220 million next year for a new main rocket engine, so it appears likely that substantial funding will be in the 2015 budget for the effort.
The Senate Armed Services Committee also adopted three provisions sponsored by Sen. John McCain that the Arizona Republican said “would improve the prospects of competition for military space launch and help move the Pentagon away from using taxpayer dollars to purchase rocket engines from Russia. Specifically, they would:
- “Require that the Air Force have a full and open competition on two satellites that they tried to sole-source.
- “Prohibit future contracts to buy Russian rocket engines to launch our national security satellites.
- “Investigate undue reliance by the U.S. space industry on foreign suppliers and parts such as engines.”
McCain has questioned the propriety of the Air Force’s 36-core bulk buy contract with ULA and asked for an investigation into it. The request came prior to an appeal of the contract by SpaceX, which wants the agreement set aside so it can bid for the launches with its Falcon 9 rocket.