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Obama Administration Opposes New Money for RD-180 Replacement Engine

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2014
Updated: 17-Jun-2014 10:07 PM

The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this evening.  The bill is scheduled for House floor action tomorrow.  The White House "strongly opposes" the bill for many reasons, one of which is the $220 million it provides to begin development of a new rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for the Atlas V launch vehicle.

The White House asserts that it is premature to commit that level of resources to a new engine while it is still "evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition."

As the SAP says, a recent study of alternatives to the RD-180 concluded that building a new engine would take eight years and cost $1.5 billion, with another $3 billion needed for a suitable launch vehicle to utilize it.  The White House apparently believes it can reduce that cost and schedule through public-private partnerships.

Last night, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced that it had awarded commercial contracts to "multiple" U.S. companies to develop concepts for a new U.S. liquid rocket engine that could be ready in five years -- by 2019.  ULA said it plans to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year.  ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV families of rockets.  They are primarily used for national security space launches, as well as for NASA and NOAA satellites. ULA President Michael Gass said that as "the nation's steward of the launch industrial base" it is "incumbent" on the company to "bring forward the best solutions."   ULA added that it is evaluating the technical feasibility of the new concepts for "both private investment and the potential for government-industry investment" -- in short, public-private partnerships. 

U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 rocket engines for launching national security satellites entered the spotlight earlier this year when the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship deteriorated after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region.   Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector and is one of the Russians sanctioned by the Obama Administration, threatened to prohibit use of the RD-180s for launching U.S. national security satellites.   The response from the Administration and Congress has been to eliminate U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines by building a U.S. alternative, though there clearly are differences in how to accomplish that goal.

Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian rocket engines for the Atlas V dates back to the 1990s, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.  At the time, the Air Force required the company to build a co-production facility in the United States to manufacture the engines independently of Russia in case the geopolitical relationship changed.   The Air Force later waived that requirement and Lockheed Martin -- through ULA -- stockpiled a two-year supply of the engines to guard against any such eventuality.  Consequently, today the engines are still manufactured in Russia by Energomash and provided to ULA through RD-AMROSS, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies, a U.S. company.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a sole-source block-buy contract to ULA in December rather than allowing SpaceX to compete.  SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that the Atlas V should be discontinued because of its reliance on Russian engines.  U.S. space policy requires that the government support two launch vehicle families to ensure access to space in case one should experience a lengthy hiatus because of a failure.  Atlas V and Delta IV are those two families today, but Musk sees a future when it is Delta IV and his American-made Falcon.


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