Air Force Launches Search for New Rocket Engine

The Air Force will meet with firms interested in developing a replacement to the Russian-made RD-180 engine that helps lift U.S. military and spy satellites into space.

The Air Force has launched a search to replace the Russian rocket engine that helps lift U.S. military and spy satellites into space, and will soon share more details about the effort with companies interested in bidding for the work.

The service’s Space and Missile Systems Center last month released a so-called request for information, or RfI, to look for ways to develop a successor to the RD-180. Officials plan to discuss the plans at a so-called industry day Sept. 24 at the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, California, and one-on-one sessions with interested firms on Sept. 25 and Sept. 26 at Los Angeles Air Force Base, according to the notice.

“The Air Force has relied upon foreign sources for booster propulsion systems in the past,” the RfI states. “However, consistent with the 2013 National Space Transportation Policy, we are pursuing alternative domestic capability.”

Competitive launch and space policy will be among the topics discussed at the Air Force Association’s annual conference next week in National Harbor, Maryland.

The RD-180 is made by the Russian company NPO Energomash, sold by RD-Amross and used by the Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture, United Launch Alliance LLC, as a first-stage engine on the Atlas V rocket as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV, program.

Lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon for mismanaging the EELV program — one of the Pentagon’s most expensive acquisition efforts, estimated to cost almost $70 billion through 2030 — and for relying on Russia to launch U.S. national-security payloads, especially at a time of rising tensions between the two countries over Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, has also sued the Air Force to open the military launch market to competition.

The launch program drew international headlines this year after a judge in the SpaceX case issued a temporary injunction that prevented the government from buying the Russian engines. In response, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister targeted by the White House for economic sanctions, threatened to stop supplying the U.S. with them.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has said deliveries of the RD-180 continue uninterrupted. But even she acknowledged that a recent independent study known as the Mitchell report after its author, Howard J. Mitchell, a retired Air Force major general, concluded that the U.S. shouldn’t rely so heavily on Russia to launch spacecraft.

The report, a summary of which has been posted on the website, www​.spacepolitics​.com, pointed out that there were 38 Atlas V missions on the launch manifest, but only 16 RD-180 engines stockpiled in the U.S., and makes a series of recommendations, according to a post on the website by Jeff Foust.

To ensure U.S. military access to space, James has said service is considering expediting delivery of the engines, speeding up the certification process for new entrants to the program such as SpaceX, and, in the long-term, identifying ways to manufacture an engine in the U.S, either by co-producing the existing engine, developing a new engine under a traditional acquisition program or adapting technology already available in the private sector for the program under a public-private partnership.

ULA, which is set to launch a secret CLIO satellite made by Lockeed atop an Atlas V on Sept. 16, last month unexpectedly announced a change in leadership. Tory Bruno replaced Michael Gass as chief executive officer. The company also recently announced plans to begin studying a replacement for the RD-180.

Any effort to develop a new domestic rocket engine will likely also attract bids from such companies as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp. and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has partnered with Dynetics to design the AR-1, a smaller, higher-performing version of the Apollo-era F-1.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.