Space launch vehicles usually require both first and upper stages to accelerate the spacecraft to speeds necessary to place payloads in their intended orbits. The workhorse of U.S. space launch is the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V uses a Russian-designed and produced first stage engine, the RD-180. In recent years, attention and resources have been focused on developing an alternative to the RD-180. In 2016, the Air Force awarded contracts to four companies to develop new first stage rocket engines. However, a more efficient upper stage engine also would help the performance of the Atlas V. It is time to get serious about restoring American preeminence in space launch. For less than the money that has been provided so far to develop a replacement for the RD-180, about $500 million divided among the four prospective developers, the Air Force could have multiple upper stage engine options by the early 2020s. I have written more about this for The National Interest here.
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