Air Force New Engine RFI Ignores Reusability

Image Credit: SpaceX

Innerspace Commentary:

On Wednesday, United Launch Alliance took delivery of two more Russian built RD-180 rocket engines destined for the Atlas V. They were delivered to Huntsville, Al. aboard an Antonov cargo plane in a depressingly routine procedure.

RD-180 Credit: Energomash

Credit: Energomash

Curiously, even though Congress is in recess, none of the Alabama delegation; Mo Brooks, Mike Rogers, Robert Aderholt, and of course the dean of American intransigence, Senator Richard Shelby, were on hand to celebrate the arrival of two more Russian engines designed to save us from ourselves. Odd, given the fact that the taxpayers they represent have been subsidizing the entire affair from the outset.

Timing is a sometimes a curious thing. On the same day, the Air Force issued a Request for Information concerning a possible replacement for the RD-180, and/or for the entire Atlas V.  Though there are some positive signs, there is also one looming omission which clearly indicates the USAF still does not know what century it is in.

First the good. From the synopsis:

“Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is considering an acquisition strategy to stimulate the commercial development of booster propulsion systems and/or launch systems for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class spacelift applications. The Air Force has relied upon foreign sources for booster propulsion systems in the past. However, consistent with the 2013 National Space Transportation Policy, we are pursuing alternative domestic capability. The Government is seeking insight into booster propulsion and/or launch system materiel options that could deliver cost-effective, commercially-viable solutions for current and future National Security Space (NSS) launch requirements. (emphasis added) The Air Force needs this information to inform near term decisions about how to best ensure that future launch requirements are fulfilled by reliable, commercially-viable sources.

In order to maintain assured access to space, and get the best value for the taxpayer, the Air Force is requesting information from U.S. Industry to help determine the best way to ensure that future launch requirements can be met by reliable, commercially-viable sources of production. The Air Force is open to a range of possible options including but not limited to: a replacement engine with similar performance characteristics to currently used engines, alternative configurations that would provide similar performance (such as a multiple engine configuration) to existing EELV-class systems, and use of alternative launch vehicles for EELV-class systems. The Air Force is particularly interested in exploiting any available synergies with commercial space launch systems. The Air Force is also highly interested in business opportunities for public-private ventures and would like to identify specific opportunities that capitalize on potential synergies between military and non-military space needs.”

Not bad right?

While some might be tempted to point out that the obvious answer to the desire expressed in bold type is currently at Cape Canaveral’s SLC-40, counting down to launch its second commercial comsat mission in the month of August alone, an optimist might conclude that the Air Force is so impressed with the success of NASA’s COTS and CRS programs that it may use them as a model for future acquisition for ensuring the availability of two such systems. For the truly wild eyed optimists, (or just delusional) maybe that alternative will simply turn out to be a single, Raptor powered derivative of the Falcon 9. One suspects that is not what the Air Force has in mind. Nor necessarily should it. As SpaceX has brought commercial space launch back to the U.S., it is not too much to expect that two or even more American firms could compete on a level playing field, and enter into a new era of market domination like that which the nation ceded to Europe and Russia over the past two decades. Particularly with Sea Launch and ILS reeling, and Arianespace very perplexed as to how to proceed in meeting the challenge presented by SpaceX.

A new engine development program, properly conducted could go a long way towards ensuring that outcome. But not if it remains buried in the past.

The real problem is this. The linked RFI document contains 33 questions for prospective participants to answer in order to help the Air Force craft a possible development program.  Some are rather repetitive, but here is a sample:

  1. What solution would you recommend to replace the capability currently provided by the RD-180 engine?
  1.  Do you believe such an engine could be developed to support multiple users and a range of launch requirements?  What would you have to know about the various launch vehicles in order for you to build such a multi-use engine?

  2.  What is your recommended propulsion system cycle and propellant combination for the propulsion system you propose?

  3.  What is your recommended booster propulsion system performance for the lowest practical life cycle cost (e.g. sea level thrust, vacuum thrust, sea level Isp, vacuum Isp, throttling capability, weight, dimensions, schematics, etc.)?

  4. What are your key development technical risks, their current Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), and mitigation plans?

  5. Provide the extent of compatibility of the new booster propulsion system with any existing and/or to-be-certified EELV-class launch vehicle(s) in terms of lift capability and propulsion/stage interface as appropriate.

  6. What changes to the existing launch pad infrastructure(s) used by the potential launch vehicles would have to be made to use such an engine?

Nowhere in the document is a single use of the word “reusable.”  As in the completely imaginary question number 8:

“Should the Air Force consider engine re-usability as one possible requirement?”

Perhaps the subject will come up in whatever proposals are presented over the course of the two industry days scheduled for September 25 and 26. But is there any justifiable excuse for not at least including re-usability as one of the items important enough to make it onto the RFI?  Given the focus of assuring commercial competitiveness which shows up multiple times in the document, how could one completely ignore what is with increasing certainty going to be the definitive factor in a launch system which will enter service at the beginning of the next decade?  Particularly when with 6 years to go, the current decade has produced this:


Returning Falcon 9 first hovers stage meters above Atlantic Ocean on July 14 Orbcomm 2 Launch. Image Credit : SpaceX

It is time to for the Air Force to recognize the changes being wrought by SpaceX and embrace them. There is nothing magical in the hardware, it is all in the process, and in the mindset.  To demand anything less of future providers is both short sighted strategy and bad policy.

Posted in: Editorials, EELV

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