Congress Prepares to Push the AR-1 on ULA

AR-1 Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

AR-1
Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

The long and increasingly sordid saga of America’s dependence, and indeed bizarre fascination with the Russian RD-180 engine for the Atlas V booster is set to take another turn this week. And if certain scenarios play out, observers could be forgiven for wondering is there any limit to how much damage elected representatives from the State of Alabama can do the launch industry. For the moment at least, it seems that United Launch Alliance may be the victim rather than beneficiary of political maneuvering. Appearances though, can be deceiving.

According to Space News, the House Armed Services Committee is working on an authorization bill that would force the Air Force to abandon its plans to invest in several launch system initiatives that are spread though a number of aerospace firms, including ULA, Orbital ATK and SpaceX, and instead focus its resources on a direct replacement only for the RD-180.

That replacement is by default the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-1, a kerosene oxygen engine which the company is promoting as a natural swap for the controversial Russian powerplant. It is a very questionable assertion. For example, the AR-1, which has yet to be fully developed, is described as a 500,00 lb. thrust engine which would be installed in pairs in order to equal the output of the RD-180, which consists of a single turbo pump assembly driving twin combustion chambers and exhaust housings. While there is little doubt the AR-1 could work out technically, whether or not it is an economic swap is another matter entirely.

Here is how Aerojet Rocketdye extolls the virtues of the AR-1 on its website:

“Leveraging more than $300 million invested in rocket engine development over the last two decades, the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 incorporates the latest advances in rocket engine technology, materials science and modern manufacturing techniques to deliver an affordable and reliable booster engine to meet current and future U.S. space launch needs.

Having an American-designed and built booster engine in production would enable the U.S. to end its current dependence on foreign engine suppliers to launch some of its most important national security, civil and NASA payloads to orbit.

Using an advanced oxidizer-rich staged combustion engine cycle, the liquid oxygen/kerosene AR1 will generate 500,000 lbf of thrust at sea level. The thrust class enables the engine to be easily configured for use on multiple launch vehicles, including the Atlas V and the Advanced Boosters being considered for NASA’s Space Launch System.

The AR1 also will be an affordable propulsion solution, enabling U.S. launch vehicle providers to be more competitive in the world marketplace.”

You may need to read that last sentence one more time.

Apparently ULA isn’t convinced either, as the company has made it clear that rather than commit its future to the AR-1, it would prefer Blue Origin’s BE-4 LNG engine and a fresh start with the Vulcan booster. That point was reinforced two months ago when a company exec was fired after colorfully describing Aerojet Rocketdyne’s bid as that of the “poor girl” who doesn’t stand a chance of winning the bachelor.

Unless of course, she finds a way for Congress to intervene.

See Related: “Space Settling for Less” : How ULA Dismissal Underscores the High Cost of Low Expectations 

According to the Space News report, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry of Texas, and Alabama Representative Mike Rogers, who chairs the strategic forces subcommittee, are behind the effort to push the “engine only” approach in the face of Air Force insistence that engines need to be considered as part of a launch system. Although Aerojet Rocketdyne is based out of California, its “key development partner,” announced in January, is Huntsville, Al. based Dynetics.

The AR-1 development team stands to receive as much as $536 million in cumulative contract awards, whereas Blue Origin’s BE-4, which is by all accounts at least a year ahead of the AR-1 in terms of development, is being privately funded by Jeff Bezos’ company. Blue Origin plans to sell the BE-4 to ULA for use in the Vulcan booster, as well as utilize it for the entirely separate orbital launch vehicle it is developing. A Congressionally mandated diversion towards an Atlas V re-powered by the AR-1 would not only severely undercut the rationale for the Vulcan, it would also impinge on Blue Origin’s business plans.

What could be an inconvenience for Blue Origin could quickly turn into a disaster for United Launch Alliance, which now faces a moment of truth in its avowed desire to cut costs and become economically competitive with SpaceX. While the Vulcan booster appears to offer at least a somewhat plausible solution, it is difficult to see how a shotgun marriage to Aerojet Rocketdyne and an even higher cost basis for the Atlas V does anything but narrow the company’s long term prospects.

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2 Comments on "Congress Prepares to Push the AR-1 on ULA"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    Agree with all that you’ve said. You’re also write to point out that, in addition to trying to force the Defense Dept. (and ULA) to go a route that they don’t think is in the long-term competitive interest, steering funds instead to only one company – AR – almost certainly will result in a higher cost (to the government) solution as well. This whole thing does not pass the smell test. With all the big space media out there, like Space News and Av week, where is investigate journalism when we need it?

  2. The ULA has no one to blame but itself since it would not allow Aerojet Rocketdyne to obtain production rights for the Atlas V.

    The ULA’s argument:

    “The Vulcan launch system is expected to produce its first flight in 2019, with full certification in 2022-2023. We expect to launch Atlas 5 into the next decade as we work with customers to meet requirements and transition to the new launch vehicle, continuing our focus on mission success, one launch at a time.”

    Since Aerojet-Rocketdyne would produce the first (AR-1) and second stage (RL-10) engines for the Atlas V, they obviously want the Atlas V program to continue well into the next decade and possibly beyond.

    However, Aerojet-Rocketdyne could be completely shut out of engine production for the future Vulcan spacecraft since Blue Origin would produce engines for the Vulcan first stage and possibly even for the ACES upper stage.

    If the ULA wants to aggressively continue down the Vulcan road, maybe its time for them to allow an influx of billions of new dollars by allowing Blue Origin to become a full and equal partner in the ULA with Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

    Marcel

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