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RD-180 Decision Will Not Be Made By Space Community Says Member of Mitchell Panel

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 24-Jul-2014
Updated: 24-Jul-2014 02:14 PM

Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study. 

At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, SpacePolicyOnline.com posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.

The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.

In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate.  Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.

However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman.  On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.

The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants.  In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.

To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.

Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure.   For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.


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