Congress, Pentagon

Senator asks for another study on use of Russian engines

A few months ago, Russian media reported that the Russian government was considering a ban on the exports of the RD-180 engine, a Russian-built engine that propels the first stage of the Atlas V rocket. There’s no evidence that this proposed ban has gone anywhere, and officials with United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds the Atlas V, sound unconcerned. “This isn’t the first time that there have been articles about Russia cutting off RD-180 exports. There’s never been any perturbation in the process,” ULA’s Andrew Aldrin said at the AIAA Space 2013 conference in September in San Diego.

Still, some remain concerned about the reliance on the RD-180. Earlier this month, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced legislation to study the use of the RD-180. S. 1679 would require the Defense Department to submit a report on the use of the RD-180, including the ability and cost to manufacture an alternative engine in the US. “America has the finest defense industry in the world,” Toomey said in a statement. “I question why that industry cannot produce a cost-effective system that will avoid relying on a nation that continues to pose a threat to our national security.”

Some in industry would like to see greater domestic investment in engines like the RD-180 that use kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. “What development that’s going on in kerosene today is at a really low level,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Jim Maser told a meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) in Washington last month. “I would argue that it’s obvious that, as a nation, we are falling behind the Russians and now, likely, even the Chinese in the development of kerosene-based boost propulsion.” (Maser noted that SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, but called it small and “relatively low performance” compared to the RD-180.)

There’s good reason to think that a study of US reliance on the RD-180 sounds familiar. The fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill included a provision in section 916 requiring “an independent assessment of the national security implications of continuing to use foreign component and propulsion systems for the launch vehicles under the evolved expendable launch vehicle program.” That report has not been publicly released yet, so Sen. Toomey introduced this month an amendment to the fiscal year 2014 authorization bill being considered by the full Senate asking the Comptroller General for “a report reviewing the report prepared by the Rand Corporation pursuant to section 916 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.” Yes, a report about a report.

23 comments to Senator asks for another study on use of Russian engines

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    Modern Russia is too pragmatic to cut off RD-180 entirely except in a case of war. That said, it is a bargaining chip that can be toyed with at the Russian government’s pleasure. It should be considered necessary to have a US-sourced alternative engine or an entire alternative system to the Atlas-V family.

    • amightywind

      This was obvious long ago when the geniuses at Lockmart decided to go with the RD-180. At the time it was fashionable to raid the technologies of a crumbling Russia.

  • Ben

    Well, lets talk about money. Surely Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) is in favor of paying for the development of a new rocket engine right? Something which takes years to do, the RD-180 didn’t just happen after all. It took years of development to get to the point, first the Russians had to build the N-1 and then they had to build the Energia launch vehicle to get to that stage of developed before the RD-180 could even be conceived. True, we know the engines well enough we should be able to maybe bypass all that hard work and just make something similar.

    Either way you’re talking about more taxpayer money being spent and years of development that just isn’t going to happen. If people like Pat Toomey was really so concerned they wouldn’t be slashing NASA’s budget, and then telling them to do more with less. Rockets, rocket engines, they cost money and we’re fortunate that the fall of the Soviet Union left the Russians in a place where they had to sell their rocket engines to begin with. I cannot see Russia actually going through with any threats of stopping importing either, its a win win situation and the United States and its companies are good customers.

  • Hiram

    It makes some real sense to look into the ability for U.S. manufacture of such an engine. If the Russians did decide to withhold it, what options would we have? While ULA probably is correct that the chances of the RD-180 being withheld from us are small, the importance of the launchers that use that engine to our commerce and military are profound, at least perhaps until SpaceX has more experience with the LOX/RP-1 Merlin engines. A “gap” in U.S. human spaceflight is trivial compared with a “gap” in U.S. capability to lift large payloads. As to Toomey slashing NASA’s budget, or telling them to do more with less, this issue actually has little to do with NASA or NASA funding. NASA surely isn’t going to build a new rocket engine aimed at commercial use, and ULA probably wouldn’t like them to be heavily involved in doing so.

    • Coastal Ron

      Hiram said:

      It makes some real sense to look into the ability for U.S. manufacture of such an engine. If the Russians did decide to withhold it, what options would we have?

      ULA could substitute Delta IV and their -Heavy for any of the Atlas V missions that get scrubbed. It’s not like they don’t have redundancy already. Sure the cost would be higher, but the cost would be higher to create a backup to the RD-180.

      Once the SpaceX Falcon Heavy becomes certified for DoD/NRO launches, this becomes even less of an issue, since the Delta IV Heavy would be backed up by the Falcon Heavy.

      No doubt the Russians see this situation too, which is why I doubt they would cut off a lucrative export opportunity for no real gain, and on the negative side, more opportunity for SpaceX to take business away from them.

      Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t see this as an important issue, not with so many U.S. alternatives available.

      • Hiram

        “ULA could substitute Delta IV and their -Heavy for any of the Atlas V missions that get scrubbed.”

        Yes, but the Delta IV isn’t being used that much, and is certainly more expensive. But certainly SpaceX is likely the ultimate answer here, eventually. I really don’t want to see any congressional mandates for U.S. production of such an engine, but it makes some sense to consider whether U.S. industry has the capability or the need to produce such an engine. The result of this assessment may well be that it indeed isn’t an important issue.

        If ULA isn’t concerned, one has to wonder who is getting Toomey concerned. Probably the Aerojet folks. What skin does Toomey have in the game? But that’s exactly right, I can’t see that the Russians have any incentive to stop selling us those engines.

        • Coastal Ron

          Hiram said:

          Yes, but the Delta IV isn’t being used that much, and is certainly more expensive.

          I only pointed it out because it would be the backup for any problems with Atlas V, and even though it may not be used as much as Atlas V, it’s production could be ramped up. It is already a certified alternative to the Atlas V, though a more expensive one.

          But certainly SpaceX is likely the ultimate answer here, eventually.

          Agreed.

          I really don’t want to see any congressional mandates for U.S. production of such an engine, but it makes some sense to consider whether U.S. industry has the capability or the need to produce such an engine.

          I don’t like it when the government micro-manages supply issues, so I’d rather the government just clearly define the demand projected for all launch providers, and let the industry figure out how they will satisfy that demand. No doubt Lockheed Martin and Boeing will try to get the government to pay for developing a new engine if it came to that, but that’s exactly the wrong approach to take when there is already competition for both engines and launch providers.

          • Hiram

            “I don’t like it when the government micro-manages supply issues …”

            In principle, this is correct, but we’re talking about an issue that is very much State Department dependent. The U.S. government is going to have a role in this particular supply issue, one way or another.

            • Coastal Ron

              Hiram said:

              The U.S. government is going to have a role in this particular supply issue, one way or another.

              Unless both Boeing and Lockheed Martin say it’s a problem, it would be hard to see how the government would get involved.

              • Hiram

                “Unless both Boeing and Lockheed Martin say it’s a problem, it would be hard to see how the government would get involved.”

                Up until the provisional passage of PNTR for Russia by Congress last year, trade with Russia was still regulated by the old Cold War Jackson-Vanik provisions, which were pretty restrictive. That new PNTR status is still somewhat dependent on how Russia behaves, for example with regard to human rights. While PNTR is mainly an issue about removing tariffs as per WTO membership, the State Department can, I believe, use the legislation it replaces in other ways. Yes, aerospace companies should be keeping their eye on it, but there are certainly ways that the U.S. government could get involved. I’m not an expert on this, so it would be interesting to hear from others who are.

    • Kelly Starks

      >.. look into the ability for U.S. manufacture of such an engine…

      Pratt & Whitney (who sell the RD-180′s in the US) has the full plans and production rights to it. So they could simply build RD-180′s.

      Not it would take a while to get production up and trsted, so I’d really want to stockpile a couple so you can keep going for a year or two until productions up and running, otherwise the skys not falling.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    “Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Jim Maser told a meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) in Washington last month. ‘I would argue that it’s obvious that, as a nation, we are falling behind the Russians and now, likely, even the Chinese in the development of kerosene-based boost propulsion.’”

    This is hypocritical in the extreme. Maser was President of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne for seven freaking years (until June of this year). If Maser thought the nation was falling behind in LOX/kerosene engines, then what did he do about it during his near-decade-long tenure as the leader of the nation’s largest liquid rocket engine company? Reign in costs? Hit new price points? Invest? Innovate? Create something new?

    Or just keep his company on life support by lobbying for a needlessly complex and ultimately doomed HLV using as many of his company’s decades-old and ridiculously expensive engines as possible? I for one sure am glad we shoveled hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars Maser’s way for that LOX/hydrogen J-2X retread that NASA promptly put on a shelf.

    No wonder this idiot has been relegated to a corporate development backwater under GenCorp management.

    Maser typifies everything that is wrong with this industry… ugh.

  • MrEarl

    Two Hydro/LOX development projects are already underway.
    On the lower thrust end SpaceX continues to evolve the Merlin engine.
    On the more powerful end, in line with the RD-180, Dynetics and Rocketdine are developing the F-1B and have already started component testing.
    A third development project, in my mind, would be redundant.
    Now if the senator wants to throw money around to speed the development of the F-1B or Merlin 2 I’m fine with that.

    • Guest

      Neither of those engines are congressionally mandated, and SpaceX is making no major changes or improvements to the M1D. In fact, further kerosene based developments would be counterproductive to the now well established commercial reusability requirements. Further national investment in kerosene based engines of any type would be folly, but we all know about congressional obsession with folly and misadventure now, don’t we.

      If this is a congressional attempt at misdirection, it’s a quite incompetent attempt.

  • Andrew Swallow

    One Senator may want a new engine developed but little will happen until get gets the rest of Congress to fund it. Difficult during a time of cutbacks.

  • guest

    “America has the finest defense industry in the world”

    -we did at one time but the last quarter century has seen us lose the lead in aerospace and most heavy/permanent manufacturing industries to other countries.

    “the ability and cost to manufacture an alternative engine”

    -based on the performance in recent years with other systems such as the Orion or the ISS, I’d guess the time it would take is decades, the ability is slim and the cost would be ridiculously high-so high we’d do better than to outsource…

    “it was fashionable to raid the technologies of a crumbling Russia”

    Not only Russia-if you take a look at how we outsourced much of the ISS to ESA and Alenia as well as the contributions of the Canadians, Japanese as well as the Russians, and more recently the Europeans on the Orion service module, you really begin to wonder if the US has any kind of an indigenous capability to produce aerospace.

    “as a nation, we are falling behind the Russians and now, likely, even the Chinese”

    -yes, we have managed to sell the industry off and I’d be surprised if we have any capability remaining. You sure could not prove it by recent performance.

    • Coastal Ron

      guest said:

      we did at one time but the last quarter century has seen us lose the lead in aerospace and most heavy/permanent manufacturing industries to other countries.

      What a ridiculous statement.

      We have small companies that can out innovate entire countries (SpaceX vs China), and large companies that are the equal to the combined efforts of many countries (Boeing vs Europe-supported Airbus). Russia isn’t even a factor because of it’s lack of internal support and investment, so unless there is some hidden evil genius you’re aware of that is getting to emerge onto the world scene, it’s not clear at all who you think has surpassed the U.S.

      yes, we have managed to sell the industry off and I’d be surprised if we have any capability remaining. You sure could not prove it by recent performance.

      Of course you changed the meaning of the statement you were responding to by clipping off part of Maser’s sentence about “the development of kerosene-based boost propulsion“.

      How convenient that you both forget that the SpaceX Merlin 1D has, at 150:1, the highest thrust-to-weight ratio ever achieved for a rocket engine, and it uses kerosene.

      Apparently we do have some capability remaining…

    • Hiram

      “we did at one time but the last quarter century has seen us lose the lead in aerospace and most heavy/permanent manufacturing industries to other countries.”

      “… based on the performance in recent years with other systems such as the Orion or the ISS …”

      Huh? You use Orion and ISS to judge U.S. capabilities in aerospace engineering? Gee, what happened to commercial aviation and the DoD? Orion and ISS represent very significant aerospace accomplishment. Their only problem is that, unlike a lot of the other examples you could have considered, we don’t have a really good reason why we’re doing them. As a result, performance is not well matched to long term needs.

      Of course, the U.S. aerospace industry is well represented by NASA human space flight, right? Is that what you’re saying? Sheesh. Long ago, when Apollo ruled the skies, that’s what we were trying to convince people of. But those days are long gone.

  • Bill L

    We have no shortage of smart people in this country. Space X is a good example, but Coastal Ron you are comparing one smart person against an industry elsewhere. Once Space X shows they can go into a production basis then I’ll be a bit more comfortable. They haven’t demonstrated production. All of their machines are one-off. Likewise the Russians-they might not have the economy but they’ve never given up an inch of their industry and production capability. Airbus seems to be doing just fine and winning on revenue and machines in production as compared with Boeing, especially if you compare where they were ten or twenty years ago.

    • Coastal Ron

      Bill L said:

      Once Space X shows they can go into a production basis then I’ll be a bit more comfortable. They haven’t demonstrated production. All of their machines are one-off.

      Being a manufacturing operations professional, I don’t understand what you are saying. They have already demonstrated that they are in production, and have even changed models that they have in production.

      They’ve already launched five Falcon 9 v1.0, one Falcon 9 v1.1, and have three more v1.1 launches lined up for the next two months. Add up the number of engines that they have already built for what they have launched and what they have sitting on the pad ready to go today, and that is 70 engines plus more that are in qual testing or done with qual testing for the next couple of launches.

      SpaceX is in production, and has been for a number of years. Maybe you’re using a non-standard definition of what “production” is?

      Likewise the Russians-they might not have the economy but they’ve never given up an inch of their industry and production capability.

      Even they acknowledge that their industry is not what it used to be, and when was the last time they produced a new launch vehicle or spacecraft? Here in the U.S. we have four spacecraft being developed by four different U.S. aerospace companies. And if you ask launch customers, they are not adding Russian launches to their schedules, and if anything they are seeking non-Russian transport due to the many failures that Russian rockets have had recently.

      Airbus seems to be doing just fine and winning on revenue and machines in production as compared with Boeing…

      My point was that Boeing is one U.S. company, and Airbus is a conglomerate of European nations.

      Our aerospace industry is certainly not weak, and if anything is dominate when compared to their equivalents around the world.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    Purely FWIW, I’ve long thought that the launcher answer to the US governments medium-to-heavy lift requirements is something with an 2x RS-84-class core and an RL-60-class upper stage. It would be interesting to see what would come of a NASA-sponsored competition between Boeing/Lockheed/Aerojet-PWR and SpaceX that runs EELV Phase-II against the cryogenic methane-fuelled Falcon-X.

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