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Senators Wants Quick RD-180 Replacement, SpaceX Certification

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Jul-2014
Updated: 17-Jul-2014 07:34 AM

On a day when the Obama Administration increased sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, two Senate committees held a joint hearing that looked at how to cope with the possibility that Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines might no longer be available to power the U.S. Atlas V rocket.  Atlas V is one of two workhorse rockets used to launch the nation’s national security satellites.

The hearing also addressed how to ensure that new companies – “new entrants” – like SpaceX can compete to launch national security satellites rather than using only the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The Air Force awarded a sole-source contract to ULA last year for 36 rocket cores for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.  SpaceX later filed suit because it was not allowed to compete.  The Justice Department and the Air Force subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the suit.  Action is pending before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

The joint hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) was co-chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) from the Commerce committee and Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) from SASC.

The hearing took place this morning (July 16), before the White House announced that it was imposing additional sanctions on Russia.  The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships since Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula this spring already resulted in U.S.-imposed sanctions.   Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia’s aerospace sector, is among the individuals sanctioned.  The additional sanctions announced today reportedly include some targeted at Russia’s defense sector, but details are not yet available on whether any are associated with the space program.

In response to the sanctions and other issues, Rogozin made remarks suggesting that Russia might prohibit use of RD-180s for U.S. national security launches.  The United States is also dependent on Russia for Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Rogozin tweeted that NASA should use a trampoline instead.

Coupled with the strained U.S.-Russian relationship overall, Congress and the Obama Administration are reconsidering U.S. dependence on a foreign supplier for rocket engines needed to place U.S. national security satellites into orbit.  Today’s hearing focused primarily on that topic, but also on the question of how to ensure that companies like SpaceX can compete with ULA.

The hearing covered a lot of ground and only key points are summarized here, separated into the two broad issues that were addressed:  what to do about replacing the RD-180 and Air Force certification of SpaceX. The expertise of the seven witnesses spanned a wide range, but none was from the companies that would build a new rocket engine or launch vehicle.  They were:

  • Alan Estevez, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics
  • Gen. William Shelton, Commander, Air Force Space Command
  • Robert Lightfoot, Associate Administrator, NASA
  • Cristina Chaplain, Director, Acquisition Sourcing and Logistics, Government Accountability Office (GAO)
  • Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell (Ret.), chair of an Air Force review of alternatives to the RD-180 engine
  • Daniel Dumbacher, Purdue University (recently retired from NASA as head of the SLS and Orion programs)
  • Yool Kim, Senior Engineer, RAND Corporation

RD-180 Options

Senators and witnesses recounted the many factors in the 1990s that led to the decision to use RD-180s for Atlas V:

  • Engineering:  the RD-180 is “perhaps the most advanced rocket engine in the world,” Shelton said;
  • Cost: the Russians initially charged only $10 million each for the engines according to Mitchell;  and
  • Policy: the United States wanted to encourage Russian aerospace workers to remain in Russia instead of selling their talents to U.S. adversaries.

Nelson pointed out that it was also U.S. policy at the time to develop a domestic rocket engine, but that effort disappeared.  A co-production facility also was supposed to be built in the United States so RD-180s would be produced here, as well as in Russia, but that never happened either.

The Atlas V with its RD-180 engines has a perfect track record.   Shelton acknowledged that it is now time for the United States to develop its own engine, but almost seemed regretful.  He spoke of “dire” consequences if the supply of RD-180s is cut off before a new American engine is available -- launch delays of 12-20 months for many national security satellites and as much as 48 months for the heaviest ones, at a cost of $1.5 billion.  He argued that the best outcome would be for the United States to keep buying RD-180s until a domestic engine is ready.

If geopolitical relationships worsen or Rogozin follows through on his threat to prohibit use of RD-180s for national security launches, there are no good short term options.   Mitchell stressed that his panel concluded that shifting satellites from Atlas V to Delta IV and using new entrants like SpaceX cannot replace the Atlas V capability until 2017 or beyond. ULA has 15 RD-180s in storage according to Shelton, so if no more deliveries are made, decisions would have to be made on how to prioritize their use (the Atlas V is also used for NASA and NOAA launches).

Estevez and Shelton were asked several times how long it would take to develop a new U.S. engine and how much it would cost.  While they said 5-8 years and $1-2 billion, the main point was that the Executive Branch is still looking at options and until decisions are made on the path forward, no reliable estimates can be provided.  The only agreement within the Administration is that it is time to move away from foreign dependence.  Some of the Senators expressed exasperation that it would take so long to build a domestic engine.

Chaplain, who has spent many years at GAO reviewing national security space programs, many of which have encountered large cost overruns, commented that her experience cautions against believing any of the numbers used today.  She also stressed that they reflect only the cost for the engine, not for a new launch vehicle to use it or related ground facilities.

That latter point was emphasized repeatedly by Dumbacher.   He warned the Senators that they need to look at the issue from a systems perspective.  “You can’t swap out one engine for another” in a rocket, he said.  A new launch vehicle will be needed as well as associated ground infrastructure.

While the hearing had a sense of urgency about it, Shelton also stressed that nothing has actually changed in the U.S. relationship with the Russian RD-180 supplier (Energomash).  It is “business as usual” with the Russians, he said.

Estevez also cautioned that DOD wants to build a new engine in the most affordable way.  A new rocket engine is a priority, he said, but there are other priorities as well.

At the end of the hearing, Nelson remarked that “We are only in this position today” because of Rogozin’s “sarcastic comments,” but they brought the issue of U.S. dependence on a foreign supplier “to a head.”  The bottom line, Nelson stressed, is that the United States needs assured access to space.

Competition and Space X Certification

The United States has been dependent on Russia for RD-180 rocket engines for more than a decade, but that fact gained prominence only this spring after Russia’s actions in Crimea and a Senate hearing in March where SpaceX founder and chief designer Elon Musk raised it as a reason that his SpaceX Falcon should be allowed to compete against ULA for national security space launches.

U.S. national policy is that the government support two rocket families to launch national security satellites in case one suffers a failure that shuts it down for a lengthy period.  Today those are ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV.  Musk suggested it should be Delta IV and his Falcon rocket, since Atlas V is reliant on Russian engines while his is not.

A central piece of the debate is the Air Force's block-buy sole-source award to ULA  over which SpaceX filed its lawsuit. The issue has exploded over the past several months, with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) supporting SpaceX's position.  At the hearing today, McCain sharply questioned Shelton, insinuating that Shelton is on ULA’s side and against SpaceX.   He has become dogged in his determination to scrutinize the block-buy deal.

The Air Force contends that by buying so many rocket cores together, it saved $4.4 billion compared to its current approach of buying services one-at-a-time.  McCain contended that it was not a matter of cost savings, but cost avoidance.  He asked Chaplain, who has led many GAO studies investigating DOD’s acquisition of space launch services, to comment on that point.  She replied that it was a savings in the price at the start of DOD-ULA negotiations versus where the contract ended up.  She stressed that the Air Force followed GAO recommendations to obtain better cost and price data from ULA which put them in a better position to negotiate.

For his part, McCain reminded the panel about his investigation into what he believed were improprieties in DOD’s award of an aerial tanker lease to Boeing:  “People went to jail and people got fired.”  His message was clear.  He is not convinced DOD’s sole-source contract to ULA was proper.  “I don’t like this deal,” he declared.

The Air Force is in the process of certifying SpaceX to be able to win Air Force launch contracts.  SpaceX currently launches cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) as well as for commercial customers.  One oft-asked question is why SpaceX must go through an Air Force certification process when NASA entrusts its launches to the company.

NASA’s Lightfoot explained that the agency has different categories of missions – A, B, C and D – in decreasing order of their criticality.  SpaceX is only allowed to launch Class D missions today – those of least criticality.  NASA is currently determining whether to allow SpaceX to launch a higher priority mission (Jason-3, an ocean altimetry satellite).

Shelton said that, if all goes well, SpaceX will be certified by the end of the year.  The Air Force will have spent $60-100 million on the SpaceX certification effort, he added.   Shelton pointed out, however, that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is technically unable to launch many national security missions.  Atlas V has 10 configurations, he said, and SpaceX cannot launch seven of them.  Thus accelerating SpaceX certification is not a solution to the RD-180 problem. 


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