Ukraine Crisis Highlights America’s Propulsion Problem

RD-180 Credit: Energomash

Credit: Energomash

An Innerspace Editorial

On Wednesday, March 5th, Elon Musk is scheduled to appear before the Defense Sub-committee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, for a hearing concerning national security space.  Also on the panel will be Scott Pace, head of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, and Christina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office.  The hottest seat however, should by all rights be that occupied by United Launch Alliance head Michael Gass.

With Russian tanks rolling across sovereign borders in Europe, it is time Gass answered some very tough questions regarding his company’s ongoing reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 main rocket engine for national security space launches even as it has fought tooth and nail to prevent SpaceX, and the all American Falcon 9 booster from entering the defense launch market. Make no mistake, current policy is directly helping the same Russian military industrial base which is re-surfacing as a threat to peace in Europe and as an affront to the right of self-determination everywhere.

(For background on the ULA and the EELV program, please see the following articles in The Space Review; Competition and the Future of the EELV Program. Parts I and II.  For a look at the current situation, and a possible path away from dependence on Russian technology, please see EELV’s Era of Transition,  also in The Space Review)

In 2006, a Rand corporation study performed for the Congressionally Mandated National Security Space Launch Requirements Panel concluded “The use of the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine in the Atlas V Common Core booster is a major issue that must be addressed in the near term.” It went on to observe that the Air Force contract with Lockheed Martin called for production capability in the U.S. by 2010 in order to comply with National Space Transportation Policy.

Eight years and nearly $6 billion in combined subsidies later, the issue has never been addressed.  Instead, it has only gotten worse, as ULA pushed for a 50/50 distribution of EELV launch awards between the Atlas V and Delta IV, even as it terminated the Delta II and then declined to include the Boeing Delta IV in its National Launch Services contract with NASA. The sole exception is the single Delta Heavy scheduled to perform the first test flight of the Orion space capsule later this year.

Consequently, NASA was left with little choice but employ the Atlas V wherever a medium or EELV class booster was needed.  Though the Delta IV is presumably more expensive than the Atlas series, NASA has not been afforded the ability to determine for itself whose industrial base it wanted to support in NLS launch awards.

Partly as a result, even as the U.S. attempts to regain domestic crew launch capability through the Commercial Crew Program and stop paying Russia to launch American astronauts, two of the three participants currently being funded, Boeing and Sierra Nevada, are still depending on Russian engines. Here, the fault lies squarely with Congress, which has both refused to act on the warnings provide by Rand, and then compounded the problem by deliberately underfunding the Commercial Crew program in the full knowledge that the inevitable result is extended reliance on, and cash payments to, Russia.     

Fortunately, the issue has now been addressed by SpaceX, a solution made possible by the substantial contribution of NASA.

The bottom line is that the United States now has two distinct domestic propulsion elements; the SpaceX Merlin 1-D powering the current Falcon 9, and the Aerojet-Rocketdyne RS-68 which powers the Delta IV.  As most are probably aware, SpaceX is also working on the vastly more powerful Raptor family methane-LOX family of engines.  In short, it is time to place a sunset provision on the use of Russian built main engines for U.S. taxpayer funded launches, beginning with national security space. As for the highly problematic Commercial Crew program, it is also time to openly acknowledge that the origin and makeup of the launch vehicle should be taken as factor in consideration, provided there is no discernible impact on overall safety.  

There is also a major misconception regarding the utility of the Merlin 1-D. Thus far, it has been all too easy to dismiss the Merlin’s contribution to the U.S. industrial base due to apparent lack of power and technical sophistication compared to both the RS-68 and the RD-180.  Although convenient for United Launch Alliance, it is a badly flawed analysis.

While SpaceX may have begun the Merlin family with the ablatively cooled, low power Merlin 1A as a matter of expediency, what it now has in the 1-D is a much more powerful engine in a clustered formation ideally suited for performing first stage recovery and re-use in which a single, center mounted engine provides the final deceleration needed for a soft landing.

Falcon 9 Re-Entry and Descent Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 Re-Entry and Descent
Credit: SpaceX

The “Holy Grail” of rocketry may not yet be within our grasp, but we can at least see it clearly in the above image from Falcon 9 V 1.1’s  maiden flight and in the Falcon 9 booster being prepared for a launch to ISS on March 16th.  In that regard, the solution adopted by SpaceX, and not the high pressure, staged combustion RD-180 is the real state of the art, not due to the capabilities of a single component, but because of what actually matters, the capability of the entire system.

It is a capability which neither the Atlas nor Delta can even begin to approach. Curiously, the clustered engine concept also offers a way out of America’s propulsion problem.  Rather than respond to calls for subsidizing the expensive development of a U.S. version of the RD-180 or other equivalent single large engine, it is time to acknowledge that the age of re-usability is beginning, and would-be competitors such as ULA and Orbital Sciences need to be looking at solutions similar to the path being blazed by SpaceX.

The question then becomes, why is it that the U.S. propulsion industry, now reduced to a single provider in Aerojet-Rocketdyne, cannot produce a solution comparable to that found by SpaceX in the Merlin family, particularly when it has two prospective customers in ULA and Orbital Sciences who are presently engaged in a legal battle over access to the RD-180.  A sunset on Russian engines might just do wonders in shining a light on a more constructive solution.

Russia in the post Soviet era has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a valuable partner in space exploration. At the same time however, the overall trend in that nation is an ominous one, and in the light of recent developments, it is no longer acceptable to be dependent on Russia for U.S. access to space, if indeed it ever was.

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