USAF Weighs RD-180 Alternatives as Falcon 9 Certification Nears

Gen. John E. Hyten
Gen. John E. Hyten

Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Air Force Space Command, says that there is still a lot of work to be done to determine a replacement for the Russian-built RD-180 engine by fiscal year 2019 as Congress is demanding.

Meanwhile, the Air Force expects to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch defense payloads by the end of the year.

There is some work already being done to produce an alternative to the Russian engine. ULA has teamed with Seattle-based Blue Origin to offer an alternative to the RD-180, while Aerojet Rocketdyne is developing its own solution; other potential players may still emerge.

Another alternative to the RD-180 could come in the form of SpaceX, the Elon Musk founded company that seeks to challenge ULA’s dominance of the EELV program.

In September, Hyten said he hoped to have SpaceX certified by December 1. While that hasn’t happened, he told reporters after Friday’s event that the company was close to becoming certified for launch.

“We’re very close,” Hyten said. “We had one big design review they had to go through last Friday. The next big session is Monday of next week, and after that we’ll get with them, define exactly where they stand and we should have an answer this month.”

After clarifying that he expects certification to come before the end of the year, Hyten added, “we still have some details to go because we’re not going to certify someone before they are fully ready.”

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