The Air Force needs a new rocket engine. Congress has directed it to stop using Russian engines that power the first stage of its workhorse Atlas V launch vehicle by 2019, and at the moment the only viable alternative to Atlas for lifting the heaviest national-security payloads is the more expensive Delta vehicle. Atlas and Delta are both operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is about to get some competition for military launches once the Air Force certifies Elon Musk’s SpaceX in late spring. ULA has joined forces with Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, to develop a methane-powered alternative to the Russian engine on Atlas. But that will take some time, after which the new engine will have to be integrated into a new launch vehicle, and then the vehicle will have to be certified by the Air Force as suitable for military missions. It’s hard to see how much of that could be accomplished before the 2019 deadline Congress has set for getting rid of Russian engines. So in the end, ULA and the Air Force will probably turn to the AR-1 engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne — the same company that makes the engines for the Delta vehicle. Aerojet’s AR-1 will fit into the existing Atlas vehicle, and therefore it will probably be ready for missions well before the Blue Origin solution or any heavy launcher from SpaceX. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
Find Archived Articles: