Russian forces are again massing on the border with Ukraine. President Putin was basically called a liar at the G-20 meeting in Australia when he denied Russian forces were operating in the neighboring country. Former Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev recently warned that a new Cold War was beginning. Almost echoing this theme, President Putin displayed a certain paranoid streak when he said publicly that the United States “wanted to subdue” Russia. Over the past year, the Russian Air Force has been conducting an unprecedented number of mock air attacks against the United States, Japan and NATO. Yesterday the Russian military successfully tested a “satellite catcher,” a system that could be used equally for retrieving damaged objects or as an anti-satellite weapon.
Now is really the time to end this nation’s reliance on a Russian rocket engine, the RD-180, as the first stage of one of the two large rockets, the Atlas V, for its assured access to space. A growing majority in Congress, including the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain, have made this a priority. The House version of the 2015 NDAA makes clear that the DoD must move to develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine made in the United States, one that meets the requirements of national security for reliability and low risk and could be sold internationally no later than 2019. This new engine should be acquired through a free and open competition. The equivalent language in the Senate version of the defense bill is quite similar, requiring the Secretary of Defense to develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine made in the United States that meets the requirements of the national security space community.
Both the Secretary of the Air Force and Air Force Chief of Staff have publicly agreed that we must rid ourselves of this Russian albatross as soon as possible. Yet, they strongly object to the Congress directing the development of a next-generation engine. Instead, the Air Force wants to rely on the private sector – read deep pocketed hobbyists such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – to provide the resources.
It makes no sense to replace one kind of risk, dependence on a reliable Russian built engine, with several others that are potentially even worse. The Air Force has said it plans to certify the SpaceX Falcon 9 for some national security launches. It is a little hard to believe in this partial solution when SpaceX has yet to meet all its performance marks for non-critical launches. Moreover, the core of the Falcon 9 engine is old technology that does not provide the power available from modern designs. This is why the heavy lift variant of the Falcon 9 requires strapping 27 engines together. If only one goes bad, there goes a billion dollar national security satellite. Reliance on another old engine design, this one Russian by the way, was the source of the recent catastrophic explosion of an Orbital Science’s Antares spacecraft shortly after liftoff. There is no way for the U.S. to get back into the international engine or launch markets based on either of these technologies.
Relying on private investment means taking a flyer on unproven technology. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has been working on a liquid methane-based engine. Not only has Blue Origin never built an engine of the size and power necessary to lift an Atlas V rocket, but the technologies involved in a liquid methane engine would actually require designing a whole new rocket. There is no way that such a requirement will result in a first launch in 2019.
At best, the Air Force is being penny wise and pound foolish by thinking it can avoid having to pay the bill to develop a new rocket engine. At worst, the Air Force is taking an unacceptable risk with this country’s access to space.
Congress has been clear with respect to what is required. There are several potential candidates for a full and open competition able to come to the table with new engines. This is not the area to try to prove the case for public funding of defense programs and technologies. If the Air Force wants to experiment with the idea of private funding let them start with something less sensitive, say nuclear weapons.
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