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Stakeholders rally behind new U.S. rocket engine

Posted: June 1, 2014

An independent review panel commissioned by the Secretary of Defense, a top Air Force general and lawmakers in both houses of Congress have thrown their support behind the development of a new U.S.-built hydrocarbon-fueled rocket engine to wrestle America's space launchers free of reliance on Russian propulsion.

The RD-180 engine powers the first stage of an Atlas 5 rocket during a 2012 launch. Credit: NASA/KSC
Significant details, such as the technical design of the engine, an industrial team, and how to shape design and development contracts, remain unresolved. Although insiders predict debate on those points, government and industrial officials have quickly reached consensus in recent weeks that the United States can no longer rely on Russian rocket engines to launch the military's national security satellites.

More U.S. military and intelligence-gathering satellites have launched on the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which is powered by the Russian RD-180 main engine, than any other rocket in the last decade.

But the future of the Atlas 5 is now at the mercy of Russia and the courts as sanctions may cut off the rocket's supply of engines in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine.

ULA's access to the RD-180 engine has twice been threatened in the last month, first by a temporary court order prohibiting the purchase of new engines from Russia after ULA rival SpaceX filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn a sole-source launch contract awarded to the Atlas and Delta rocket-maker by the Air Force.

SpaceX says it can launch the government's military communications, navigation and surveillance payloads at a fraction of the cost of ULA's rockets. But the Falcon 9 rocket operated by California-based SpaceX is not yet certified to launch the Pentagon's most expensive and unique payloads, and Air Force officials have said they will not issue a launch contract to SpaceX until it is certified.

The injunction against RD-180 imports was lifted a week later after U.S. government officials assured a federal judge the engine trade did not violate sanctions levied against Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is in charge of Russia's space and defense sectors.

Then Rogozin held a press conference May 13 announcing that Russia would no longer sell RD-180 engines for use on U.S. military satellite launches. Rogozin's comments were the second in back-to-back daggers aimed at the heart of the Pentagon's launch program.

Officials from the Air Force and Colorado-based ULA say they have, so far, received no written notification that Russia intends to restrict exports of the RD-180 engine.

But growing uncertainty over the future supply of Russian rocket engines prompted lawmakers to propose funding to kick-start development of a U.S.-built engine as a replacement to the RD-180, which has no counterpart in the United States with comparable performance.

The House Armed Services Committee passed legislation May 7 calling for the Pentagon to spend up to $220 million next year to commence full-scale development of a new engine in time to power launches in 2019.

File photo of an Atlas 5 rocket launching with NASA's MAVEN spacecraft to Mars. Credit: NASA/KSC
A military oversight committee in the Senate approved a bill last week directing the Secretary of Defense to develop a plan to produce a high-thrust liquid-fueled rocket engine for production by 2019, earmarking $20 million this year and an additional $100 million in 2015 to fund engineering design work.

Both committees put forward language requiring military to hold a competition open to industry to bid on developing and producing the engine.

The Senate's bill adopted an amendment proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., prohibiting the Pentagon from awarding new launch contracts to rockets using Russian engines. If passed into law, the language effectively shuts the Atlas 5 rocket out of future launch competitions beyond the flights already under contract to ULA, which signed a deal worth approximately $11 billion last year to cover 28 rocket launches from 2014 through 2019. Of those 28 launches, 20 missions are reserved on Atlas 5 rockets.

The Senate's proposed restriction on Atlas 5 launches with Russian-built engines allows for a waiver for national security reasons and if space launches cannot be obtained at a "fair and reasonable" price.

The Atlas 5 manifest over the next few years also includes additional launches awarded to ULA under previous contracts.

The rocket engine provision was included in each committee's version of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which still needs passage by the full chambers of the House and Senate. Lawmakers then must work out the differences before sending the compromise bill to the White House for President Barack Obama's signature.

A panel of aerospace experts, chaired by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell, commissioned by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this spring to study the Russian engine predicament recommended the Pentagon back the development of a new liquid-fueled engine with similar performance to the RD-180, which generates about 860,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.

Comprised of active and retired personnel from the Pentagon, NASA, and the National Reconnaissance Office, the panel urged NASA and the Air Force to create a joint program office to oversee the government's investment in a new U.S.-built engine, according to a summary report obtained by Spaceflight Now.

Although estimates from the Air Force, industry and independent experts differ, most predict it could take five-to-eight years and cost more than $1 billion to develop a U.S.-built replacement for the RD-180 engine.

The panel chaired by Gen. Mitchell forecast a new engine could be available by 2022.

ULA's chief executive said the company would be agreeable to anything it took to meet customer demand. In ULA's case, that means what the Air Force -- and Congress -- wants.

"Depending on where world events go, and whether we have the RD-180 engine or any future engine, we'll look at what are the right products for the future," said Mike Gass, ULA's president and CEO. "We're open. Nobody has that perfect crystal ball. ULA is fully committed to meeting our customers' needs, and we've got a product that meets all our needs."

SpaceX's Merlin engine is built in the United States but must be launched in clusters to lift an Atlas 5-class payload. Credit: SpaceX
The expert committee advised against co-producing the RD-180 engine in the United States, an option that ULA says will cost $1 billion over five years. That solution would still require Russian engineering expertise.

"You haven't necessarily solved the problem, and all the studies we've done in the past indicated that the cost to co-produce versus the cost to develop a new engine were kind of in the same ballpark," said Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, in a meeting with reporters May 20. "There's not a financial savings, and one of the main objectives is avoiding foreign reliance, and you don't get that with co-production."

The report recommends the new engine burn hydrocarbon propellants, but it does not specify which type of hydrocarbon -- highly refined rocket-grade RP-1 kerosene or liquid methane. The engine would burn liquid oxygen along with kerosene or methane fuel for combustion.

Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, deputy chair of the engine study board, said the question of methane or kerosene remains open.

Methane is a more efficient propellant for rocket, but engineers have substantially less experience with large methane-fueled rocket engines than kerosene, which has powered space launches since the flight of Sputnik in 1957. Methane must also be stored at super-cold temperatures, unlike kerosene.

The United States has not developed and flown a new hydrocarbon-fueled engine at least as powerful as the RD-180 since the F-1 engine used on the Saturn 5 moon rocket.

Since then, NASA and the Air Force have funded development of two large hydrogen-fueled rocket engines for the space shuttle and the Delta 4 rocket, which was initially operated by Boeing Co. and then merged into ULA along with Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5.

"We have never agreed to do without a LOX/hydrocarbon (liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon) engine," Griffin said. "What we did was outsource it. We maintained indigenous capabilities for large solids, which we are not quite the only supplier in the world, but certainly the best, and for large LOX/hydrogen engines, which we really are the only [supplier] in the world. We retained those indigenous capabilities and we outsourced LOX/RP-1.

"We are now questioning whether that was a good idea. But if you asked me, as a rocket designer, do I have to have LOX/hydrocarbon? In fairness, I have to say no, I do not have to have it. If I have to raise my hand and swear on a Bible in front of Senator X and say do I have to have this, then no, I do not have to have it," Griffin said. "Anything that I really need to do I have do with a large solid, and there will be a question that will need to be answered as to whether that is a choice that we wish to make, and it will influence the launch vehicle designs and architectures, whether they are commercial or whether they are government-based."

But the engine study panel called for a liquid-fueled engine, a capability which could be applied to launch future national security satellites, NASA's robotic science missions, astronaut crews to the International Space Station, and human exploration missions to the moon, Mars, or an asteroid.

Without specifically citing the results of the Defense Department-sanctioned engine study, the Air Force's top space commander said May 20 that he believes it is time for U.S. industry to develop a new rocket engine.

"I would love to see us produce an engine," said Gen. Shelton, who couched his statement as a personal opinion. "If you look at our history, when's the last time we produced an engine? It's been a long time. Our industrial base has kind of withered a bit. There's always a chance, just like we're facing today, that you'll run into a rainy day. And the rainy day looks kind of daunting."

Shelton said a new engine would bolster the U.S. rocket propulsion industry, which was weakened in the aftermath of the space shuttle's retirement. He said a U.S.-built engine would also set the United States free of relying on Russia.

An Apollo-era F-1 rocket engine was transferred from the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to harvest parts for refurbishment to develop a modern version of the engine. Credit: NASA/MSFC
Three companies are working on kerosene-fueled engines under technology risk reduction contracts to NASA for a next-generation booster for the space agency's Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket designed to dispatch astronauts to destinations in deep space. The initial flights of the mega-rocket will carry two solid-fueled boosters built by ATK derived from the strap-on motors used on the space shuttle.

NASA awarded nearly $109 million to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman Corp. Aerospace Systems, and Dynetics Inc. in late 2012 for early design and development of kerosene-fueled rocket engines and liquid propellant tanks. NASA tapped Aerojet Rocketdyne to work on a clean-sheet 550,000-pound-thrust class engine, and Dynetics is partnering with Aerojet Rocketdyne to resurrect the decades-old F-1 engine technology from the Saturn 5 rocket. Northrop Grumman, which has worked on its own kerosene-fueled engine, received money to study composite propellant tanks.

Aerojet Rocketdyne's engine work is also funded by the Air Force under a separate research contract.

ATK also got $30 million to advance development of a next-generation solid rocket booster using lighter components and new propellant mixtures.

Kent Rominger, vice president of strategy and business development for ATK's space launch division, said he gave a presentation to the Pentagon's engine study committee to pitch the benefits of solid-fueled propulsion for future boosters.

He said that although the panel recommended a liquid-fueled engine solution, a solid first stage would be the most "cost-effective" answer to the U.S. rocket industry's propulsion problem.

Industry officials say ATK has already bid a solid-fueled first stage as a replacement for the Russian-built, U.S.-owned AJ26 engines used on the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket. Orbital managers say they expect to select long-term engine for Antares, which launches cargo to the International Space Station, some time this summer.

SpaceX is working on its own million-pound-class Raptor engine. Fueled by methane, the engine is set to begin ground testing at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

The Falcon 9 rocket's Merlin 1D engine generates about one-sixth of the thrust of the Atlas 5's RD-180 engine and must be flown in a cluster of nine engines to give the Falcon 9 a similar lift capability.

If the Pentagon is directed to shepherd a new rocket engine through development, the bills in Congress require the military to oversee a competitive procurement in which all companies capable of building an engine would be welcome to submit bids.

"There's a debate to be had, and I think it will over the next four or five months to see what we want to do as a nation," Shelton said.

"Personally, what I would like to see us pursue is hydrocarbon boost," Shelton said. "I don't think LOX/kerosene is the way to go, and certainly LOX/hydrogen is a thing of the past. I think all signs point toward hydrocarbon boost should we decide to do it."

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.