Congress, Pentagon

Hagel: Defense Department plans “review” of dependence on RD-180

The Defense Department will perform some kind of review of the dependence of the US on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 engine, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a House committee on Thursday.

Late in a hearing by the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the Defense Department’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) asked Hagel about that dependence in light of what he called the “Ukrainian situation.” “Does it demonstrate it’s time for us to move ahead promptly more with a Air Force/NASA funding to develop additional capabilities for making power rocket engines here in the US?” Aderholt’s northern Alabama district is near both NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and United Launch Alliance’s manufacturing facilites in Decatur.

“You’re obviously referring to the relationship with the Russians on the rocket motors,” Hagel responded, although neither he nor Aderholt mentioned the RD-180 engine by name. “Well, I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

“Do you feel that this is something that is rising to the forefront now with this Ukrainian situation?” Aderholt asked. “Yes, as I just said, I think there’s no question, sure,” Hagel responded. Hagel did not offer further details about what that review would entail.

Hagel’s comments, though, indicate a stronger degree of concern than previously about the availability of the RD-180 engine, which powers the Atlas V first stage. Last week, United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass testified to Senate defense appropriators that there was more than two years’ worth of RD-180s in storage to support Atlas V launches should the supply of those engines be interrupted, and that his company had the capability to manufacture RD-180 engines domestically. “We are not at any risk for supporting our national needs,” Gass said at the hearing.

Earlier this week, Air Force undersecretary Eric Fanning confirmed Gass’s comments, saying there was a stockpile of RD-180 engines that would last into 2016. He added that the US was looking at ways to “ensure a varied supply of the engines,” according to Reuters, including domestic productions. Earlier proposals to manufacture the RD-180 domestically were long ago set aside in favor of stockpiling engines, given the time and expense required to establish a domestic production line.

42 comments to Hagel: Defense Department plans “review” of dependence on RD-180

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    It’s a sensible thing to do; I’ll leave it at that.

  • I wonder if Rep. Aderholt’s endgame is to have the taxpayer finance ULA building a new plant here in the U.S., under the guise of national security.

    • Coastal Ron

      Stephen C. Smith said:

      I wonder if Rep. Aderholt’s endgame is to have the taxpayer finance ULA building a new plant here in the U.S., under the guise of national security.

      Let’s hope not. There is nothing stopping ULA from pursuing a replacement for the RD-180 on their own, without even more government subsidies.

      If they are unable (or unwilling) to replace the RD-180, and they lose Atlas V business because of it, so be it. That’s capitalism. No doubt Aeroject would love to sell more RS-68’s to ULA for increased Delta IV orders, which is the direction that Elon Musk suggested should happen anyways.

  • Andrew Swallow

    NASA (or the DOD) could have a new engine designed. New ones have been designed by JSC, Armadillo, Masten and SpaceX in the last few years. Other firms may be interested in trying. White Sands will need something new to test as work on the RS-25E comes to an end.

    A replacement engine for the RD-180 will need to produce about 861,000 lbf (3.83 MN) of thrust at sea level. There is a wide choice of possible propellants.

  • Hiram

    Another feather in Elon’s cap is that domestic production of the RD-180 would almost certainly be more expensive than if purchased from Russia. So says RD-Amross, the joint venture between Rocketdyne and the Russians, and who has the RD-180 design. We may not be at risk for supporting our national needs, says ULA, but it’s gonna cost ya. Now, the RD-180 is not a large fraction of the cost of an Atlas V, so that cost increase may be absorbable.

  • Dark Blue Nine

    Aderholt is partly responsible for this situation. After Augustine reported out, the Administration proposed that NASA develop a new LOX/kerosene engine. It was Aderholt and his fellow congressmen who rejected that effort in favor of zombifying certain Constellation elements in the form of SLS and MPCV.

    With so much overcapacity in the launch market, it makes no sense for the U.S. to rely on foreign components (from Russia or anywhere else) for its national security launch vehicles while spending tens of billions of dollars on the civil side building an HLV from an entirely different technical base. It’s far past time to consolidate resources, retire the out-of-date and grossly uncompetitive Apollo/STS legacy systems, and execute a modern and coherent national launch strategy.

  • amightywind

    Glad to see this administration’s visions of unicorns vanishing. Lockmart deserves all of the criticism they get for relying on a Russian engine. They stand to lose.

    • Jim Nobles

      And while we’re on this train of thought. I’ll just complain that I was not happy with the amount of foreign work and materials in Orbital Science’s COTS entry. What was the metric, 50% U.S. in order to qualify?

      How in the heck did they get that, by counting the cost of the paperwork?

      Sorry. Bit of a mini-rant. Been bugging me for awhile.

      If the metric was 50% I hope that bump it up to 75% if a similar thing comes up again.

    • Dave Klingler

      “Glad to see this administration’s visions of unicorns vanishing. ”


      “Lockmart deserves all of the criticism they get for relying on a Russian engine. They stand to lose.”

      And they sure do get a lot of criticism…uh, don’t they? They put together a cost-effective and extremely reliable launch vehicle that makes a ton of money. They stockpiled engines and did some due diligence to allay fears about availability. They could switch over to DIV if the RD180 ever became a problem. What’s not to criticize?

      There are times, Windy, when I think you might say these things just to try to rile everybody up. Surely this is caricature?

  • The US should be moving towards cleaner carbon neutral fuels for its rockets in the long run anyway. The Delta IV family can replace any mission required by the Atlas V with the substantially increased demand lowering its cost.

    NASA will also have a man-rated hydrogen fueled vehicle in the form of the SLS by the early 2020s. And Boeing has already suggested SLS derived versions that wouldn’t require any solid rocket boosters at all and have the payload performance of a Delta IV heavy. But outsourcing our rocket engine production to Russia was a bad strategic and economic (loss of domestic jobs) idea from the start!

    Hydrogen and oxygen can easily be produced through the electrolysis of water instead of from fracking and natural gas. Plus rocket fuel is only a tiny component of the total cost of a rocket launch.

    But the nation as a whole needs to be progressively moving towards– carbon neutral– energy in its electricity and transportation fuel production through nuclear and renewable energy sources if its going to move towards energy independence while also mitigating climate change and sea level rise.


    • Hiram

      Not so fast. Not so simplistic.

      which concludes that 672 tons of CO2 are released per LOX/LH2 shuttle launch. That’s pretty icky water that gets released, no?

      But really, compared to internal combustion engines across the country, rocket launches are a small deal. The annual CO2 emission of the U.S. is about 5 million tons per year. About 30 million tons per year for the world. Gonna take a whole lotta launches to come anywhere near that number.

      So, with all due respect to climate change and CO2 pollution, ones energies are far better directed elsewhere, and rocket emissions are a sad distraction.

      Nukes! We need nukes!! Maybe if we canned the SLS, and used that money for a smart ecological investment, we could make some progress on that front.

    • The US should be moving towards cleaner carbon neutral fuels for its rockets in the long run anyway.

      Nonsense. To the degree that carbon is a problem (it’s a negligible one, IMO), rocket launches are such a tiny part of it that’s it’s not worth a dime to try to fix it.

  • Bennett In Vermont

    Slightly off topic to the post, but I didn’t bring it up…

    “…climate change and CO2 pollution…”

    I watched a presentation by a geologist who was asked what is “normal” for our planet in historical terms. His answer was that basically the climate has never been really stable for any length of time on a geologic scale, and that if you look back over the millions of years of the geologic record, “normal” is an atmosphere with greater than 1600 ppm of CO2 and a sea level high enough to submerge Florida.

    That’s why all plants grow faster in an enhanced CO2 environment, it’s based on their genetic background. To call CO2 a “pollutant” is simply ignorant, or it’s a ploy to spin a political agenda.

    Sorry, back to the business of whether or not Pork Politics will result in a taxpayer subsidized engine to replace the RD-180.

    Me? I’m looking forward to seeing video of the Raptor being test fired at Stennis!

    • Bennett In Vermont

      Sorry, missed the close quote html.

    • Hiram

      “To call CO2 a “pollutant” is simply ignorant, or it’s a ploy to spin a political agenda.”

      There’s a lot of that around here. Take a bow. Bye, Florida! We only really need 49 states anyway.

      • Bennett In Vermont

        That’s not the point, our planet went into a series of ice ages because the loss of our CO2 blanket (by the creation of the Himalayan plateau and the exposed rock interaction with our atmosphere) caused our planet to cool way down. The turtle and crocodile fossils in norther Canada got there because our planet used to be a lot warmer. It was warmer because CO2 is a greenhouse gas that made much more of the world’s land masses temperate to tropic.

        There was more life, more species, for millions of years before primates developed. Higher CO2 and a warmer earth may indeed change the sea level and coastal profile, but it also makes more of our planet’s land masses habitable. Especially to the north.

        Since we have no control over China building a new coal fired power plant every week, CO2 will continue to rise and we are already seeing a “greening” of the planet in NASA satellite studies. Thinking that we can counteract the global production of CO2 by killing our economy (by making energy both intermittent and more expensive by relying on wind and solar) rather than planning for mitigation in a warmer world is a religious belief, but it’s not science.

  • Malmesbury

    1) SLS needs boosters, whether solid or liquid. They hold it up on the launch pad.

    2) This is deliberate – the give ATK guaranteed work.

    3) The anger when people figured out how to build liquid boosters that could also support the core on the pad was amusing.

    4) if you want an HLV that could launch core only, look at the Atlas derived ideas. That were specifically rejected at the command of Shelby et al.

    5) There is a question as to whether a US RD-180 can be done. Coatings that can’t be reproduced etc.

    6) spending billions to get a copy if the engine they are using now is one possible answer. There are other straws in the wind. USAF requests for tenders for methalox engines. Repeated requests for tenders for reusable first stages….

    • amightywind

      2) This is deliberate – the give ATK guaranteed work.

      And the fact that they performed perfectly 25 years on the Space Shuttle means nothing? I think it is frugal to use the good hardware that we already have.

      Coatings that can’t be reproduced etc.

      You must be joking. You should have added, “…cheaply enough for the short sighted bean counters at Lockheed Martin.”

      • Ben Russell-Gough

        Yes, the fact that they worked acceptably (‘perfectly’ is overstating the case) on the shuttle after the post-Challenger RTF is meaningless. Only the motor’s relevance to NASA’s current needs should have been considered, not a politically-motivated attempt to protect a legacy vendor.

        • amightywind

          SRBs are relatively compact and produce high. Thrust. They are ideal for use in the first stage of any large launcher, which, of course, is why they are there for SLS.

          • Ben Russell-Gough

            Yeah, funny that SLS is the ONLY HLV idea that uses them. All others use clusters of liquid-fuelled rockets. I wonder why?

      • vulture4

        The operating cost of large segmented solid fuel boosters, due to the number and duration of precision lifts manpower for placement of o-rings, hazardous tasks, booster mass and hazardous nature from initial segment manufacture, and need for MLP/crawler system renders them economically infeasible even without reuse, which is also not proactical due to the need to disassemble and remanufacture the entire structure.

      • Dave Klingler

        “And the fact that they performed perfectly 25 years on the Space Shuttle means nothing? I think it is frugal to use the good hardware that we already have.”

        The SLS SRB bears only superficial resemblance to the Shuttle SRB. The new one is a clean sheet design with a different core. The frugality exists only in the minds of those who haven’t been following the SLS (or Constellation) very closely.

  • Malmesbury

    Designing a system so that it *has* to use a particular component? Rather than just using it because it was needed?

    Parallel cores would have given a flexible, scalable system. That could have been an upgrade for the EELV program as well. But ATK wouldn’t have been guaranteed work…

    The bit when they discovered they were being dumped anyway was hysterically funny.

    Have you worked out why NASA needs to go to 130 tons yet?

  • Malmesbury

    “You must be joking. You should have added, “…cheaply enough for the short sighted bean counters at Lockheed Martin.””

    Nope. They couldn’t reproduce the coatings. They tried. The Russians didn’t sell them the process as part of the RD-180 deal. Quite deliberately.

    This isn’t Star Trek – sadly. Some things are nearly impossible to reverse engineer. The process by which one British armour plate maker increased performance by 25% in the 1920s is now lost – considered super secret at the time and lost to poor documentation.

  • Neil Shipley

    Interesting timing in all this. SpaceX has just embarked on a next generation Methalox fuel/fuel SC engine of around 800klbf SL thrust called the Raptor. Testing of engine components expected to start later this year. Looks like timing is everything.
    No need for anyone to worry now as should be in production in time to help out ULA who only have a couple of years of engines left in stock. Just in case Russia bails on supply of the RD-180.

  • Malmesbury

    Yes – given the issues with duplicating the RD-180 it would quite possibly be cheaper to build a whole new first stage. Cheaper yet to buy an already developed engine/stage.

    Raptor is apparently 1M lb now, by the way. 9 on a core….

  • vulture4

    Here’s the answer. Congress will order the DOD to launch all its payloads on SLS.

  • Malmesbury

    DOD will tell “their” congress criters to say “Hell no” to SLS.

    Better Red than a NASA rocket is their motto after the shuttle fun….

    • vulture4

      Sorry, it was a joke. But what you say could be important. If we could get DOD to oppose SLS on the grounds that some of the NASA SLS funds could be redirected to get US production of the RD-180 and launches of the Falcon Heavy that would get it certified as an EELV…. maybe DOD would help persuade Congress that SLS is not long for this world.

  • DocM

    How hard would it be to reconfigure Atlas V to use two AJ26-500’s if Aerojet and Teledyne Brown got the go-ahead?

    If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine and cuts the source of Antares cores Aerojet and ULA could solve each others problems.

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