Engine Providers Pitch Ideas for RD-180 Replacement to Government

Launch of Atlas V with NROL-33 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 22, 2014. (Credit: ULA)
Launch of Atlas V with NROL-33 satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 22, 2014. (Credit: ULA)

Space News reports on an invite-only meeting last month during which America’s leading space companies discussed their ideas for replacing the Russian-supplied RD-180 engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V engine.

The meeting was attended by White House and Pentagon officials, who are devising a strategy to eliminate the nation’s dependence on the Russian engine amid a deteriorating relationship between the two countries over the Ukraine war.

Some of the companies, including Aerojet Rocketdyne, ATK, Blue Origin and to a lesser extent SpaceX, coalesced around the idea of developing a next-generation main-stage engine, sources said.

Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, the dominant U.S. supplier of large liquid-fueled rocket engines, is working on a kerosene-fueled, 500,000-pound-thrust concept dubbed AR-1, which the company has said could be fully developed in four years for less than $1 billion. In one scenario, sources said, two AR-1 engines would replace the RD-180 engine on the Atlas 5. The RD-180 generates nearly 900,000 pounds of thrust.

Representatives from Blue Origin, the Kent, Washington, firm bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, said the Air Force also should consider a liquid-oxygen/methane engine. Brooke Crawford, a spokeswoman for Blue Origin, declined to comment.

Officials from ATK Aerospace of Promontory, Utah, the largest U.S. supplier of solid-rocket motors, suggested the Air Force consider that as an alternative to the liquid-fueled engine envisioned by the service. The industrial base to produce a large, solid-fueled rocket is already in place, the company said, according to sources….

SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, could offer an engine as well. However, sources said SpaceX likely is more interested in simply offering the full-up Falcon 9 as a means of assured access to space. The Falcon 9 is currently being certified to carry military payloads, and SpaceX has a heavy-lift vehicle in development that is expected to debut next year.

The U.S. Air Force is heavily dependent upon the Atlas V for military and intelligence satellite launches. Although ULA stresses there have been no interruptions in RD-180 deliveries, a consensus has formed that the U.S. needs to eliminate its dependence on the Russian engine.

Although SpaceX’s Falcon 9 will soon be certified to carry military payloads, it cannot fully replace the Atlas V and ULA’s other launch vehicle, Delta IV. The larger Delta IV, which is used almost exclusively by the military, does not depend on Russian engines, but it is much more expensive than Atlas V.

Read the full story.