SpaceX Gets an Air Force Funding Infusion for Raptor Engine

Operators at the E-2 Test Stand at Stennis conduct a test of the oxygen preburner component being developed by SpaceX for its Raptor rocket engine, which is being built to power flights to Mars. (Credit: NASA)
Operators at the E-2 Test Stand at Stennis conduct a test of the oxygen preburner component being developed by SpaceX for its Raptor rocket engine, which is being built to power flights to Mars. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceX’s plans for its high-performance Raptor engine got a boost last week when it received a $33.7 million contract from the U.S. Air Force.

Raptor, which will be powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane, is designed for use on SpaceX’s super-heavy lift launch vehicle. That rocket would send the company’s Mars Colonial Transporter vehicles to the Red Planet.

Under the contract, SpaceX’s will develop a Raptor prototype for use as an upper stage on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

SpaceX is contributing $67.3 million under the  jointly funded $100 million program. The Air Force could contribute a total $61.4 million if it exercises additional options. SpaceX’s total contribution would be $122.8 million if the government exercises all its options. Total contributions by both parties could total $184.2 million.

The Air Force is funding propulsion work by multiple companies as part of an effort to transition way from dependence on Russian- supplied RD-180 propulsion system used on ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

SpaceX will perform work on the program at its headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., NASA Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and the Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. Work is expected to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2018.

  • TomDPerkins

    The phrase, “knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing”, comes to mind.

  • larryj8

    According to the SpaceX website, the FH payload to GTO is 21,200 kg. The Falcon 9 is rated at 4,850 kg to GTO. That’s the same as the vanilla Atlas V 401. Perhaps the Raptor engine is more for the F9 than the FH. There are a lot of government payloads that are too heavy for an F9 while an FH would be overkill. A more efficient upper stage would allow SpaceX to compete for more payloads, putting cost pressure on ULA. A Raptor upper stage might have enough performance to be recoverable. If so, that would further lower the cost.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Better compare 460 seconds to 380 seconds. BE-4? This part of the talk is about upper stages.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Sure would be exciting if this DoD gift lead to a fully reusable falcon 9

  • TomDPerkins

    Better learn that isn’t the metric that matters.

    It’s dollars per delta v per pound.

    Or really, that should be dollars per delta v pound.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    How about the fact that it’s NOT a first stage engine, or maybe that it’s not available to any and all launch vehicle manufacturers ? Would SpaceX sell Raptor engines to ULA or Orbital ?

  • TomDPerkins

    Seems like any engine is sea level or vacuum engine, depends on the bell–also seems like the Raptor already in development IS a first stage engine. Don’t see why it should be available to any other launch vehicle manufacturers. They aren’t getting enough gov money already?

    ULA and it’s progenitors in particular have had way more than they have any excuse seeing, they should have already done this with the money they have already receive–screw’em..

    Also don’t see where you’ve quoted any part of the law at all.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Better learn basics of rocketry (rocket equation, influence of Isp) :-).

  • TomDPerkins

    I know them very well.

    You have not demonstrated either that 1) in a business model of reusable hardware, that the proper metric is not the cost to delta the v of a pound mass or 2) that if it is that, that LH2/LOX as opposed to LCH4/LOX is the cheapest way to accomplish the change in the velocity of a pound mass.

  • Flatley

    It’s awfully difficult to demonstrate cost savings when competing against systems that don’t exist yet.

  • TomDPerkins

    Then the people touting LH2/LOX shouldn’t be sure LCH4/LOX is a mistake.

  • Flatley

    Q) How much cheaper will the CH4 stage be than the LH2 stage?

    A) We don’t know, not only because a CH4 upper stage doesn’t yet exist, but because a “NewSpace” LH2 upper stage doesn’t yet exist. BO will probably be bringing the first one to market.

    Q) If, as you say, the mass of a given CH4 stage is twice that of the LH2 stage (no endorsement of those numbers) for similar capability, how much more expensive must the boosters be to loft that stage in the first place?

    A) We don’t know. The easy out is to say “reusability changes everything,” which it does, but we don’t know to what extent. We DO know that, all else being equal, a larger booster costs more to launch and refurbish than a smaller booster. We don’t know how much.

    It’s entirely premature to declare the death of LH2.

  • Flatley

    It’s not a mistake for SpaceX because their stated goal is to go to Mars. It’s not a mistake for BO because they’re using BE-4 as a lower stage engine, and it should be competitive with RP-1; I think the BE-4/BE-3 combination will be formidable as previously mentioned.

    Beyond that, all we know for certain is:

    1) An LH2 upper stage is lighter than a CH4 upper stage given a sufficiently high dV requirement (this number we can compute with certainty)

    2) The CH4 upper stage is cheaper than an “equivalent” LH2 upper stage. (Whatever “equivalent” means). This number is a pure shot in the dark.

    Given the choice between certain mass savings and uncertain economic savings, I’m prone to favor the number we know; if CH4 ends up being the cheaper option, then full speed ahead with it. Recall, though, that Boeing thought it would pull a neat trick with common LH2 upper/lower stages on Delta IV, and we saw how that turned out. SpaceX’s use of an RP-1 upper stage has obviously worked out somewhat better.

  • TomDPerkins

    “Boeing thought it would pull a neat trick with common LH2
    upper/lower stages on Delta IV, and we saw how that turned out. SpaceX’s use of an RP-1 upper stage has obviously worked out somewhat better.”

    RP1 relatively sucks less as an upper stage fuel than LH2 drastically sucks as a first stage fuel. I trust you’ll agree that just from the fuel characteristics tables, that could have been anticipated.

    Equivalent means the same mass of payload given the same change in vector–delta v. For that equivalent result, cheaper is better.

  • TomDPerkins

    But is can be anticipated from organizational history and the physical properties of the materials involved.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    What value are you referring to?.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Elon would say: “It is only about some metal, some platics, oxygen and hydrogen. Why shall it not possible to combine it in a also cost-effective way to rocket?”

    Why shall technology advance “forget” LH2 and deep cryogenic technology in terms of cost reduction?

  • TomDPerkins

    It’s a metaphor. Like, “can’t see the forest for the trees”.

    The tree is the lower Isp of LCH4/LOX compared to LH2/LOX . The forest is the fact it’s the allover cost of changing a payload’s vector that matters, not the relative merit of any specific engineering choice from one figure of merit which does not in and of itself involve dollars.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “The forest is the fact it’s the allover cost of changing a payload’s vector that matters…”

    Well this is the trees and the forest. At the end of the day, the cost is all that matters. So your the sentence:
    “The tree is the lower Isp of LCH4/LOX compared to LH2/LOX.” should be reversed. Given that both engineering choices will achieve the mission requirements, then the cheapest option, that is to say, the most affordable option, is the best option. The cheapest option provides the most value. I’m still not clear on what your argument is.

  • TomDPerkins

    And LH2 is a drastically poor choice for powering a car, even if you are running a fuel cell for electric power. The volume power density is too low.

    “Why shall technology advance “forget” LH2 and deep cryogenic technology in terms of cost reduction?”

    To reduce costs.

  • Snofru Chufu

    That technology (RP1-LOX-rocket engine propelled launcher) that DARPA/Air Force financed already existed elsewhere. No need to give tax payer money for this “new” technology.

  • Snofru Chufu

    The video shall only demonstrate that liquid hydrogen can be used/handled even by common man/user.

  • TomDPerkins

    It demonstrates it’s dangerous enough it is handled by a fully automatic robot arm or remotely by an operator thereby kept safe.

  • TomDPerkins

    If they wanted a new implementation of this old technology, they need to pay for it didn’t they?

  • Snofru Chufu

    I deleted my former comment, because it not expressed what was my attention to say. BMW/Linde developed a liquid hydrogen filling station, which can be accessed ans used by public, even it is automized.

    I think also that usage of liquid hydrogen in car is not a good idea due different reason.

  • Snofru Chufu

    Your point

  • Snofru Chufu

    Liquid Hydrogen–the Fuel of Choice for Space Exploration

    http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/hydrogen/hydrogen_fuel_of_choice.html

    Liquid hydrogen technology stays also important for future nuclear thermal rocket systems.

  • Snofru Chufu
  • Vladislaw

    There was not another quick, cheap, reliable launcher for small sats at the time SpaceX was funded. SpaceX didn’t hit it either.

  • Rob

    Only modification needed is replacing the word “profit” with “benefit”.

  • Rob

    The “profit” they get is earlier access to hardware. This differers in a few important ways from giving companies money in order to continue operating.

  • Rob

    There have been multiple statements by SpaceX employees that Raptor will be used in the first stage of their next generation of rockets.

    But even then, what does it matter? The goal is to end reliance on a Russian component to get military satellites into orbit. You’re interpreting the phrase “replace RD-180” far too literally.

  • Rob

    Don’t forget that both SpaceX and Tesla brought their first products to market while funded entirely through private investments. Tesla’s DOE loan and SpaceX’s NASA contracts didn’t come until later. The fact that Musk is trying to solve these issues primarily through a capitalist process (and getting filthy stinking rich in the process) seems to imply that he doesn’t lean *that* far to the left.

  • Snofru Chufu

    It seems that you like it to believe even the cheapest propaganda of your own government. Putin’s Russia is on a much better way as Jelzin’s, in terms of national sovereignty
    and strength. Putin’s Russia is even back on world’s stage. The major difference between both time periods is that Putin does not allow US influence and aggression to his homeland.

  • DocMordrid

    The F9 Full Thrust has much more performance than their (sandbagged) website numbers. SES-9 is 5330 kg, and they plan on landing the stage which uses reserves. Balls-out with an expendable core, even more.

  • DocMordrid

    USAF wants a long loiter, high performance upper stage for when Atlas V 552 and Delta IV Heavy go bye bye, and they’re willing to help pay for it. SpaceX will pay from 50%-66% of the development cost. Better than USAF paying for all of it.