The Air Force is running out of wiggle room when it comes to developing an American replacement for the Russian rocket engine that powers the Atlas V space launch vehicle. According to a report in yesterday’s DefenseNews, the Senate and House conferees on the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) have settled on language that would prohibit use of the RD-180 engine after 2019 although the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that provides the Atlas V, can use its current stockpile of the engine as well as any purchased through 2019. The defense bill also contains a waiver provision that would allow ULA to continue using the RD-180 “if needed for national security and if space launch services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of the engines.”
Equally, important, the NDAA language requires the Pentagon to develop a new U.S. rocket engine that can be deployed by 2019. This is important for several reasons. First, it addresses a critical national security vulnerability. Those who continue to hope that policy differences between Russia and the West will somehow magically abate need a sanity check. Second, it will jump start the domestic rocket motor industrial base which has been in relative decline for decades. This is critical not only for our continued access to space at reasonable cost but also to the future of both the land and sea-based ballistic missile forces. Third, it may help get the United States back in the commercial space launch business. Just this week, European governments decided to provide billions of euros in funding to its space agency to develop a new, modular Ariane 6 launch system intended in particular to recapture launch business that has been lost to lower cost competitors. Finally, a domestically produced engine would provide jobs.
2019 is only five years away. This means the Air Force will have to move out smartly. Fortunately, as I laid out in a Lexington Institute report earlier this year, it has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to candidates. ULA has forged an arrangement with Blue Origin which is developing a first-of-its-kind liquid oxygen (LOX)/methane engine. Aerojet/Rocketdyne has been working on a modern LOX/kerosene design incorporating advanced propulsion and manufacturing technologies. There is also Sierra Nevada Corporation which has a design for a unique vortex combustion engine. SpaceX, which is also competing with ULA as a launch services provider with its Falcon 9 vehicle, could in theory provide versions of its Merlin engine to its principal competitor.
There are two questions that need to be answered. The first is which of these potential competitors can meet the target date with a reliable engine at a fair and reasonable price? By the way, any assessment of price must include in addition to the price of the engine itself the cost of any modifications that are required to the Atlas V launch vehicle, launch complex and launch procedures. The second question is how to go about determining which option has the best chance of success with acceptable risk? The only way to find out the answers to these questions is to hold a full and open competition.
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