Air Force to Team with Rocket Makers on New Engine

The U.S. Air Force wants to partner with rocket makers in developing a new propulsion system that could replace Russian-made technology used on existing boosters, officials said.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Air Force wants to partner with rocket makers — not engine manufacturers — in developing a new propulsion system that could replace Russian-made technology used on existing boosters, officials said.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, on Thursday at the Space Symposium discussed plans for the so-called public-private partnership to develop a new American-made rocket engine.

The service wants to award contracts to multiple firms to develop potential alternatives to the RD-180 engine, James said. The Russian design is made by NPO Energomash and used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas booster in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program — an arrangement that has drawn scrutiny in the wake of Russian military involvement in the Ukraine.

“We would fund a number of launch service providers who would then start developing engine alternatives,” the secretary said. “They would, as part of this procedure, agree to make available to others whatever they develop in the way of a new engine.”

She added, “The idea being that we would use government money for a number of companies, but they would have to put some of their own money in, as well.”

James didn’t specify when the Air Force may ink the deals — or how much of an investment the private sector would be expected to make.

The service expects to release a request for information about the acquisition effort sometime this year. Congress in December authorized $220 million to begin developing a replacement to the RD-180 as part of a massive spending bill called the Omnibus Appropriations Act. The legislative language specifies a “target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019.”

After the development of viable alternatives, the Air Force would pick one or two launch systems, including both the engine and the rocket, James said. “You have to have both,” she said. “There’s no such thing … as a plug-and-play engine.”

Hyten added that the industry partners in the arrangement will be with launch service providers, not engine manufacturers.

“Everybody thinks the partners got to be the engine manufacturers,” he said. “No, the partnership has to be the launch service providers. They have to decide that, ‘Yes, I want to partner with the government with an engine that I want to build a rocket around.'”

Hyten added, “You have to make sure that there is a rocket for the engine, so the key element … is with the launch service provider.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how this may impact United Launch Alliance LLC, currently the sole supplier of Atlas and Delta rockets in the Air Force’s EELV program, or potential new entrants such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk.

SpaceX famously builds its rockets, engines and other components in-house — a process that Musk and other company officials have said keeps costs down and allows the company to sell Falcon 9 launches relatively cheaply. A call to a company spokesman wasn’t immediately returned.

ULA earlier this week unveiled plans for a new rocket, called Vulcan, which would use a new and privately funded BE-4 engine made by Blue Origin LLC, owned by Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has questioned the need for government funding to build a new engine.

ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is also considering using the new AR-1 engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne as a back-up for the Vulcan, which was estimated to be ready by 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne supports a government effort to develop a new propulsion system. A call to a ULA spokeswoman wasn’t immediately returned.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Peter N. James

    As a product of the American space program during the Apollo period and having worked as a space systems analyst in helping Pratt & Whitney Aircraft's Florida Research and Development Center compete against Rocketdyne in developing the technology behind the oxygen-hydrogen high chamber pressure staged combustion rocket engine (competition involved contracts with the U.S. Air Force and later NASA), I'd like to make the following comment:

    Almost a half century has passed since America was the first nation to land Man on the moon and return our astronauts home safely. Technology during this period advanced on a MONTHLY-YEARLY basis due to American creativeness, commitment, and competition. I would never had dreamed during the 1960s that HALF A CENTURY LATER America would be dependent on Russian rocket technology and could not even send ANYONE to the moon. The political leadership by both the Republican and Democratic parties has failed to build on the science and technology that earlier generations handed to them on a silver platter.

    It would be worthwhile for someone to put together the total expenditures by the U.S. government to fund the waste, corruption, and other self-serving projects by politicians in Washington during the past half century compared to expenditures directed towards rocket engines and launch vehicles.

    In blunt language, America needs new and competent leadership on both Capitol Hill and in the White House. And, it wouldn't hurt requiring EVERY junior high school in the USA to show students films covering the Apollo Man on the Moon program and what was accomplished in a few short years by a generation of "CAN DO" Americans. Compared to the Apollo years, America today has too many losers in important positions who could care less about science, technology, and our nation's space program.

    (Peter N James)

    • Leon Suchorski

      I find it ironic that Elon Musk is succeeding in so many ventures that we need, and on his own push.

  • oblatt23

    "Technology during this period advanced on a MONTHLY-YEARLY basis due to American creativeness, commitment, and competition."

    Have to laugh. Contractors talk all the time about how patriotic they are. But when it comes down to it all they really ever want is more free government money.

    It wasn't CAN DO Americans it was buckets of free cash and lavish spending over 50 years all frittered away by greedy contractors who through the spigot to the trough would never turned off. That is why the US space industry cant compete with the Chinese and Russians

    • Dfens

      Your statement reflects a common misconception about NASA funding. Here's the last NASA administrator's comments about NASA's funding levels:

      "when averaged over decadal or fifteen-year time scales, the nation’s civil space program has experienced no particularly noteworthy funding peaks. The highest historical funding period was actually in the decade (or 15-year interval) centered on the early 1990s, NOT DURING APOLLO. Further, if we assume funding stability in constant dollars as shown in Fig. 2, the total in every subsequent decade will match that of the Apollo development decade, 1959-68. Expressed in a slightly different way, NASA could carry out a complete Apollo-scale effort every 15 years between the present day and the 100th anniversary of Sputnik." —

      When NASA designed their own rockets we could go to the moon. Once they started outsourcing the design of everything to defense contractors who make $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend doing that work our manned exploration of the solar system has come to a dead stop. We have given away 50 years of progress so a handful of defense oligarchs could go from rich to richer. I believe that is the point Peter is trying to make too.

      • Muttling

        I agree with you completely, but the numbers are worse than that. It's very rare to see a contractor work for a 10% mark up. By the time you take into account their overhead, it's more like they get paid $2.25 for ever $1 they spend. The REALLY frugal ones run a 1.75 mark up.

      • Dfens

        I've always suspected you are right, but it's never been anything I could prove. I have seen engineering rates as high as $350/hr charged to the government. With the median wage for an engineer being less than $50/hr and even if you still assume 40% should be added to that for what they laughingly call "benefits" these days that's still only $70/hr. So what the f is the other $280/hr for? If engineers were the only ones who charged direct to a contract I could maybe see those rates, but everyone from the kitchen help to the CEO charges direct to the contract these days.

  • oblatt23

    >The service wants to award contracts to multiple firms to develop potential alternatives to the RD-180 engine, James said. The Russian design is made by NPO Energomash and used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas booster

    All so we can have a second rate engine with an American flag on its side. The Russians and Chinese will still have the cheapest and best engines because US space industry has already surrendered. They no longer compete with the russians and chinese they just tend to their shrinking monopoly with the US government.

    • Leon Suchorski

      It is ironic that you mention the Atlas booster. Our freeway overpasses were originally designed so that the Atlas could fit underneath, while in transport. But one time, the lead vehicle noted that someone made a mistake with an overpass, and they had to pull over and let a little air out of the tires, so it could pass underneath. Then they re-inflated the tires, and went on with the trip.

  • Peter N. James

    Oblatt23 — Sorry, but you have indirectly verified the point made in the original post. America won the Moon Race against Russia making far better use of available talent, resources, and funds during that time period COMPARED TO THE WASTE, FRAUD, CORRUPTION, AND MISUSE OF TAX DOLLARS SPENT BY TODAY'S SELF-SERVING POLITICIANS, BUREAUCRATS, AND CONTRACTORS. In the "Old Days" Americans knew how to think. Today, Americans have been taught to FOLLOW and ACCEPT what they are being told. This, by the way, explains why today's politicians can seek higher office by totally misrepresenting known facts without fearing an irresponsible press and media that could care less about protecting the public's right to know.

    The incompetence level displayed TODAY by our government might very well be the reason why the Russians and Chinese could out-perform us as you project. We both probably agree that today's approach by the White House, just throwing money at any problem, does not always work.

  • corp_guerrilla

    Peter, I agree that incompetence and greed are rampant in the Government and first-generation rocket works today, as well as in a good part of the entitlement-prone constituency. Cultural deterioration and all that. I have watched the devolution since the days of Commercial Titan. However, there is a segment of resistance and revolution in the private sector, exemplified by SpaceX – and representing the new generation of CAN DO. They are enough to get this old rocketeer's engines ignited.

    • jbiz

      Space X, the new generation of can do? They hired unemployed desperate NASA/RD/aerospace folks and then re-invented past designs that had been developed several decades earlier. The only customer for Space X is the Uncle Sam.
      search this. 20 Years Ago: Novel DC-X Reusable Rocket Launched Into History
      There are more variations of these and even earlier prototypes that were abandoned . Then instead of giving credit to the past they just ignore it. That is they way to go. More turkeys.

      How to fix the problem? There needs to be Rocket design that is ongoing to get folks to have a career. It is the folks that matter and investing in them allow the development of in depth knowledge to carry out improvements.

  • H Siverio

    Try the company named, "AD ASTER". If they can help NASA get to Mars in 39 days, they should be able to figure out a better rocket replacement.

  • sw614

    Absolutely no reason we cannot produce modern versions of the F-1 and/or J-2/HG-3 used during the Apollo program (HG-3 was designed but never flew). They ended up as pretty reliable and produced good thrust (over 1.5 million lbs in the case of later F-1s!)

    We should never give a nation that, historically, is less than our best friend this kind of leverage over us.

    • Leon Suchorski

      You mean like we have with China and our military spare parts, of course.

      • sw614

        Two wrongs do not make a right. Why make a bad situation worse?

    • Dfens

      1 F-1 produces the same thrust as the 2 RD-80s they currently use to boost the Atlas first stage.

      • Mitko

        Actually Atlas V uses 1 RD-180 (it's a two-chamber engine), and while F-1 is 75% more powerful it is also much less efficient so you'll need a bigger fuel tanks. So even if you had F-1, which you don't, you can't just put it in place of RD-180, you'll need to develop a new rocket.

      • Dfens

        Must be a full moon tonight.

  • 89509331

    The sooner that we get on with this important development & produce our own the better; & to hell with the Putinesquers….

  • CJKosH

    Why does this seem shady to me? It sounds like they already have someone in mind. And who says there are no plug and play engines? The RD-180 case in point. Could be wrong, but it seems like a new system to lock in favorites, and limit true competition.

  • Peter N. James

    Above comments involving legitimate competition among Americans and companies are valid. The best way to get back American superiority across the board is to hold both government contractors and officials publicly accountable. This means encouraging the press and media, and especially technical and scientific publications, to cover these issues. It also appears that the members of the CAN DO Apollo-Space Shuttle generation should join forces with the dwindling number of today's CAN DO generation to get on the "Score Board". Hold conferences that invite the general public and local press and media. Start letting politicians in Washington know that Americans want to take a closer look at EXACTLY where each tax dollar goes (i.e., waste, fraud, corruption versus legitimate R&D, science, technology, and defense programs).

  • CTOCS77

    Seems to me that they would team with both. Are we going to end up with a Corvette with a lawnmower engine or a Pinto with a 1000 Horses.

    James is just another contractor/Government employee/ looking for another exit to a corporation when the Obama Administration exits the White House.

  • James

    This is a great opportunity for SpaceX to prove themselves as a viable resource for our space endevours. I hope they take the bull by the horns and take full advantage of this!

    • blight_jlkasdf

      Will be tougher if "Air Force" decides to help out the "rocket makers on new engine". Not much of a free market with un-equal assistance towards the ULA against SpaceX. Langley had tons of dollars, but still lost to the bike shop owners in Dayton, Ohio. So…my odds are on the agile competitor.

  • Ray Vaselich

    EELV had requirement for RD180 second source in USA. Apparently someone removed requirement. RD180 is used in multiple systems so not sure why no plug and play engine possible? New engine for future is good but projected delivery date is unreliable based on history of development of similar systems. Ditto for projected cost.

  • Ed Peura

    I think Sec James and gen Hyten will try to do what is necessary to replace the RD180. Unfortunately, our acquisition bureaucracy will take forever to approve an acquisition plan and procurements packages. By the time the Air Force decides what engines to invest in, 2019 will be impossible to meet as the Secretary has testified. If the planned ULA developments work out and Falcon heavy comes on board, there may be hope. In the meantime, Congressional language needs to be cleaned up. Without that, the US will be unable to launch post 2018.