Russian Rocket Engine Replacement : Air Force Makes Two More Awards

The problematic, but oh so reliable RD-180. Credit: Energomash

The problematic, but oh so reliable RD-180.
Credit: Energomash

The Air Force has made two more awards in an effort to extricate itself from a controversial, and at times baffling American dependence on Russian rocket engines used to boost some of the nation’s most valuable and sensitive payloads into space.

Yesterday’s awards, announced by the Space and Missile Systems PAO, went to Aerojet Rocketdyne and United Launch Alliance. Two previous awards, which were made public in January, went to SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

Here are the numbers:

Aerojet Rocketdyne was awarded $115.3 million for its work on the AR-1 engine, which would be a direct replacement for the RD-180.

ULA, which currently builds and operates the Atlas V as its contribution to the joint venture with Boeing, was awarded $45.8 million for work on the BE-4 engine. Unlike the kerosene/oxygen RD-180 engine powering Atlas V, the BE-4 runs on liquidfied natural gas, and is meant to power the company’s all new Vulcan booster. A much smaller award of $800,000 was given for work on the Vulcan’s ACES upper stage.

Among the two earlier awards, Orbital ATK took home $46.9 million, part of which is meant to support the GEM 63XL solid rocket strapon booster which would assist ULA’s Vulcan with heavier payloads. Another portion of that amount however, is to go to a new booster Orbital ATK is contemplating, one which would compete with ULA’s Vulcan. In yet another sign of just how interwoven things can be, a final portion of the award would go to an extendable nozzle for Blue Origin’s hydrogen/oxygen BE-3 engine which could find use on either Orbital’s new booster, or on ULA’s Vulcan. That is the same engine, in its Sea Level version by the way, which drives Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket. In that role, it has successfully completed two flights with powered landings.

SpaceX, as usual, stands apart. Its award, $33.6 million, is to support work on the methane powered Raptor upper stage engine and there is no overlap with other companies. Even so, it still raises some eyebrows due to the fact there is little indication of how a Raptor upper stage would fit into Air Force solicitations. It raises the possibility that despite previous indications to the contrary, Elon Musk’s company might be contemplating an alternative upper stage for the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy.

To complicate matters further, Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers (R) is warning the Air Force that it is breaking the law in making awards for rocket system elements, rather than explicitly for an RD-180 replacement. Air Force officials have previously stated in Congressional testimony that it makes little sense to focus on engine development only due to obvious necessity of having a rocket which is designed around a particular engine.


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