Hyten Defends Cost Estimates on Ending U.S. Dependence on Russian RD-180 Engine

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

The head of the U.S Air Force’s Space Command is defending estimates on what it would take to end Atlas V flights powered by Russian RD-180s and transfer payloads to United Launch Alliance’s other booster, the Delta IV.

But it is impossible to accurately predict the cost of launch vehicles by the end of the decade, the point at which McCain wants the Air Force to stop using the RD-180, Air Force Space Command chief Gen. John Hyten said Thursday during the Space Foundation’s annual National Space Symposium.

The Delta IV is much more expensive than the Atlas V — on that point Congress and the Air Force generally agree. But exactly how much more the Delta IV will cost in 2020 is difficult to calculate, Hyten said. It all depends on what assumptions the Air Force makes about the state of the launch industry in the next decade.

“The reason I don’t know how expensive that’s going to be is because I cant tell you what the industry is going to be in 2020, I can’t tell you what ULA’s business case is going to be in 2020,” Hyten said during a media briefing. “I can make certain assumptions that make the Delta IV very attractive, and I can make certain assumptions that make the Delta IV unbelievably expensive — it’s all based on the assumptions that you make of what you think the world is going to be like in 2020.”

In a letter to U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, McCain cited a discrepancy between a $5 billion figure the service cited publicly and $1.5 billion he said James cited privately.

McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been adamant about getting ULA to stop using the RD-180 engine as soon as possible. ULA officials say it will take a number of years before its new Vulcan rocket will be ready to launch national security payloads.