Commission Recommends New Domestic Rocket Engine as Congress Provides Funding

Capitol Building
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.

  • SilveradoCyn

    Now SpaceX has something to howl about. The house is proposing spending $220 Million to fund development of a competing engine?!

  • Guy Rovella

    Looks like UTC might regret selling Rocketdyne

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    So when UTC/P&W sold Rocketdyne, they also dissolved the relationship between Energomash and P&W Rocketdyne? That was never clear to me – I thought P&W still retained rights to produce the RD-180 after selling Rocketdyne to GenCorp.

  • savuporo
  • Tonya

    Unless the matter has already been determined, would SpaceX not be able to tender for this along with (the presumably favored) Aerojet?

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Would they want to?

  • Tonya

    No idea! I’m sure we could all come up with strong arguments to support either position, but it comes down to what Musk wants rather than just the business case, and he isn’t an easy person to read on these matters.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Yes, I’ll go along with that. His thinking is beyond a mere mortal such as myself.

  • therealdmt

    That’s an interesting thought. From a separate article, I read that they (the Air Force) are looking at a methane-fueled engine. Their fallback option will be kerosene, and hydrogen is out. Methane seems to be their preferred option, but they said that several technologies would need to be developed (matured? – I forget the exact words) first.

    In other words, a couple of birds could potentially be killed with one stone here.

    The government pays a billion (or say half that, if SpaceX wants to make Aerojet look like a ridiculous option) to finish the Raptor engine and

    1) a new US engine is available in less than 5 years
    2) the Air Force gets its methane engine
    3) SpaceX gets a big jump on its raptor/MCT plans
    4) SpaceX frees up a bunch of cash for other endeavors
    5) the government could stop funding the SLS sooner (as the MCT would make it obsolete)

  • therealdmt

    So, NASA could also then have money freed for other endeavors, such as say saving the non-Russian half of the space station, developing a solar electric propulsion powered manned transporter for flights out to asteroids and Mars, and maybe a moon lander or, if were serious about Mars, a Mars lander. Then there’s surface habitats and surface transporters, experiments and equipment, surface power systems – the list is mind boggling. Anyway, if the SLS were cut, there’d still be plenty of things to spend the money on at the various space centers.

    The negative of course (besides to the SLS and Orion contractors and their associated politicians) is that while the Air Force would have two different engines, they’d both be made by the same company, thereby taking away some of the benefit of redundancy/multiple sourcing.

  • billsimpson

    If it is indeed an open competition based on the lowest cost, good luck beating the SpaceX people. I think Musk is already testing methane engine components at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. A rigorous investigation of that big 36 core contract awarded right before that fellow left the Air Force, might get really interesting. Just lying to the FBI gets you 6 months in jail.

  • Robert Gishubl

    From memory Elon has previously said he would develop a Super Heavy rocket for a fixed price of 1-2 Billion. I am sure SpaceX could finish off Raptor for much less than $1 Billion and as they have commissioned a test stand at Steins it would be finished quickly, but the big question is would SpaceX want to change its business model and supply components (rocket engine) rather than a transport service?
    Also would SpaceX offer up enough political incentive to get a contract?

  • windbourne

    If DOD is going to do it, they should follow the COTs/EELV approach. It is worthwhile having at least 2 companies that develop an ENGINE FAMILY.

    However, I notice that they say hydrocarbon and not RP1.

    It would also be great if they would restart NERVA.

  • windbourne

    Hopefully, they will do 2 companies.
    BUT, I am not certain that SpaceX SHOULD be allowed in this.
    The purpose of COTS was to develop competition.
    As such, ULA, Boeing and L-Mart were prohibited from the competition.

    Right now, in America, SpaceX is the company to beat, not Aerojet.

  • windbourne


  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “…I read that they (the Air Force) are looking at a methane-fueled engine.”
    This comes from a recent speech by Gen. Shelton. He said “hydrocarbon” with kerosene as a fall-back. So methane was implied. It is strange that he should say that when only SpaceX have been publicly vocal about a transition to methane.
    Given that methane brings a 35% reduction in the size of first stage hardware (i.e. tankage) for the same performance as hydrogen, it strikes me as a no brainer to take CH4 over LH2 for the first stage. As a first stage propellent CH4 has less cost advantage over RP1 for an expendable stage, but for reusable stages the balance is definitely in favour of CH4. For vacuum stages, the extra performance of CH4 beats out RP1. Then the reduced mass fraction of the dry vehicle puts it very close to LH2 on performance whilst winning hands down on cost.
    From an Air Force perspective, the potential cost savings of CH4 launchers, both expendable and reusable, must be quite the lure as budgets become more and more constrained.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “From memory Elon has previously said he would develop a Super Heavy rocket for a fixed price of 1-2 Billion.”
    My memory says $2.5 Billion capped and guaranteed development price, with a guaranteed per launch price of $300 million.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    I am willing to be proven wrong, but I don’t see the technical attraction of NERVA. If you are able to overcome the difficulties of designing a compact maintenance free fission core for spacecraft, it seems to me to make more sense to attach it to an electric propulsion system. First of all the core could be smaller and the vehicle itself could be much smaller due to much more efficient use of propellent. Also, I think a smaller core combined with a turbine plant would ease cooling issues.

  • windbourne

    I used to be a fan of VASIMR. Then an power engineer showed me where the real problem is.

    Basically, the amount of electricity that it requires is HUGE. For moving cargo from earth towards the sun, and then VASIMR is just fine with solar cells. But, even with our best solar, VASIMR can not be powered if heading towards mars.
    As such, we need to have a small nuke power plant.
    Now, if we have a fusion that releases loads of electrons AND we capture those (i.e. a kind of solid-state approach), then it is doable. The problem is, that we do not currently do that, and are a good 30-50 years away on that.
    So, instead, we are working with a thermal plant. The issue with the thermal plant is that we have to dump the heat. In space, the ONLY way to do that, is via radiation. The weight of a system would be ENORMOUS. Basically, VASIMR will not happen for carrying humans/cargo outward.

    As such, NERVA can provide an engine to power a craft. Note that using NERVA, it would be possible to also add a couple of small thermal power plants that work from it and dumps the heat. That way, the plant can provide mostly thrust, but with a side benefit of heat for electricity as well.

  • windbourne

    In light of reagan, clinton, and W (and many argue O), I think that the lying issue is a moot point. 🙂

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Are u sure about that? Wiki’ lists Boeing as one competitor. ULA’s charter would preclude them anyway but not necessarily their parent organisations.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Er, I assuming that you know Kero’ is a hydrocarbon unlike the misinformation from the good General who has never worked in Propulsion but should know better.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    I’m pretty certain no one was blocked from COTS and if there’s a competition, then that implies it is open to any to compete. JM2CW.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    How would a nuclear thermal design be any easier to cool than a nuclear electric design?.

    The proposed Mars in 39 days VASIMR design would need 200 MWe. The wiki page for NERVA refers to up to 4000 MW th.

    Also, the nuclear thermal spacecraft would need much more fuel mass and a considerably larger, and thus more massive, tankage. Add to that the need for a more powerful, thus larger and heavier core, and you end up with more mass and more cooling issues.

    It is yet to be seen is VASIMR can make good on its promises, or whether more conventional electric propulsion can be scaled efficiently. But assuming the technology can be made to work, I don’t see how the core and cooling issues wouldn’t be reduced over a thermal design. Can you explain further please?.

  • windbourne

    I am well aware that kero ( which RP-1 is kerosine ) is a hydrocarbon, but they chose to speak of hydrocarbon, and not RP-1. That implies that they are looking to get past the expense of hydrolox (great specs and engine, but storage costs are too high), without pegging it to a specific fuel.
    My hope is that we walk away from RP-1 and switch to methane.

  • windbourne

    NERVA does not have to be cooled. It simply flows hydrogen through the heated engine, which then converts the hydrogen into plasma.

    The only part that would require cooling is if you took a small amount of that heat and used it to run a couple of thermal generators for the spacecraft power.
    BUT, the amount of electricity for that is next to nothing compared to running VASIMR engines.

    The electricity required for the spacecraft would be at most 1 MW, so just 1/200th of what VASIMR requires.

  • windbourne

    they submitted, but were told up front that they would not get it. The idea of COTS was to create new companies to compete. That is why SpaceX and Kistler won it. However, once Kistler turned to established companies for doing it (and simply skimming massive profits), they had NO chance of finishing it on-time or on-budget.
    In the second round, NASA needed a for sure thing, so they allowed established companies, which is why OSC won, rather than t/dev, or (dream chasers’s original company, but I can not recall the name).

  • windbourne

    Boeing used to own Rocketdyne. Part of the deal with selling to PW was that Boeing would not get into that industry (though it may have a time limit).
    L-Mart does not have in-house expertise on engines.
    However, IIRC, ULA prevents them from doing rockets/engines (though, I do not trust my memory esp on this ). They are allowed to compete on all other aspects of space, such as sats, etc.

    And, again IIRC, COTS was done prior to ULA.

    Regardless, SpaceX remains the company to beat.
    ULA is no threat to anybody. THey gave up so much of their IP and knowledge to others. And worse, the management there continues to cut engineers rather than their good friends in management (there has been only 1 round of management cutting, though it should be where all the cuts are focused).

    Sadly, ULA is becoming another company like IBM, GE, Novell, etc.

  • windbourne

    Yeah, still, pretty darn cheap.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “NERVA does not have to be cooled. It simply flows hydrogen through the heated engine, which then converts the hydrogen into plasma.”
    Surely there will be times when it is not thrusting or when the fuel tank is empty – how is it cooled when hydrogen is not being turbopumped across the core?.

    Also, “…converts the hydrogen into plasma.” Plasma?, are you sure about that?.

    Also, could you expand on what is a “thermal generator”?. And what are the thermal requirements for 1 MWe.

  • windbourne

    NERVA, like a reactor, can be shut down. Simply put space between the neutron generator and the fissionable material. And like the Molten Thorium Salt reactors, they do not need to be cooled.

    Yup. H2 is heated up to plasma and that is ejected.

    A reactive fluid, typically hydrogen, is pumped through narrow channels in an active nuclear reactor, which heats the hydrogen into a high-energy plasma and is then ejected from the ship. Solid-core fission rockets achieved specific impulses of 850 seconds during the NERVA tests, compared to the 450 second specific impulses for conventional chemical rockets.

    As to the generators, there are various types.
    However, nearly all of our electricity from hydrocarbon and nukes are done as thermal generators. That is, a heat source is applied to a molecule, such as water (or ammonia), that converts it from liquid to steam, which expands in volume,. The steam is then used to drive a generator. BUT, at that point, the steam needs to be cooled back to liquid, prior to heating it up.
    That is referred to as the rankine cycle.

    As to heat needed for 1 MWe, if you have 50% efficiency, then you will need 2MWt.
    That is why the vasimr that needs 200 MWe, will need 400 MWt. minimum.

    OTOH, with NERVA, you can keep a small amount of the core hot, with most cool, and then used the hot part to drive a generator. OTOH, if you are going to engage the engine, then you heat it all up, and run the H2 through it.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “like a reactor, can be shut down. Simply put space between the neutron generator and the fissionable material. And like the Molten Thorium Salt reactors, they do not need to be cooled.”

    A neutron source implies a proton (i.e. particle) accelerator, which in itself would require at least tens of MWe. Your first link mentions only critical cores, not sub-critical accelerator driven cores, which my understanding. So, given that we are only discussing critical cores, then yes, criticality can be shut down, but decay heat cooling is still required. If not it would quickly lead to a meltdown. Even an MSR would require additional cooling to prevent core vessel damage.

    Basically, the easiest way to do this is via heat exchangers and almost certainly a secondary loop. At which point you might as well use turbines to generate electricity (what you refer to as thermal generators – I was wondering if you had meant thermoelectric generators) and reduce the need for radiators . I think you have underestimated the cooling requirements for any sizeable nuclear core. For a nuclear thermal engine that spends months or years in space, it would only be thrusting, and thus using the hydrogen fuel as a heat remover, for only a few minutes of the duration of mission. I don’t see how a hundreds of MWt core will survive without decay heat removal.

    Other references don’t explicitly mention that the hydrogen would be heated to a plasma. Although, there may be some dissociation, I don’t think it would be a pure plasma as such. The NERVA program also dates from a period when electric propulsion was probably not considered. I may be unaware of some of the design nuances of the nuclear thermal approach, but I don’t think it would be substantially easier than an electric propulsion engine. It would definitely be less efficient and almost certainly larger and more massive. Still, you have piqued my interest, so I will go and do a bit more research and thought on the subject.

  • Timberwind is an interesting more recent development in nuclear thermal than NERVA.

    Meltdown wouldn’t be an issue for an MSR. Though I haven’t heard of any systems that used a MSR for a rocket. NERVA was solid core, and Timberwind was pebble bed.