Congress, Pentagon

Pentagon confirms study into reliance on RD-180 engine underway

As the Obama Administration levied new sanctions on Russia Thursday for that nation’s actions in the ongoing Ukraine crisis, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the Air Force was studying its reliance on the Russian-manufactured RD-180 rocket engine used by the Atlas V.

At a news briefing Thursday, Defense Department spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that, as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicated at a House hearing last week, the Air Force was looking into its reliance on the RD-180.

“The secretary directed the Air Force to perform an additional review to ensure that we completely understand all the implications, including supply interruptions of using foreign components for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program,” Kirby said, saying later that he wasn’t sure if this new study was already underway before last week’s hearing before the House Appropriations Committee or was triggered by it. He did note that was not aware of any threats by Russia to cut off supplies of the engine.

Another Pentagon spokesperson told Bloomberg News Thursday that “in light of the current situation, we have directed the Air Force perform an additional review to ensure we completely understand the implications, including supply interruptions, of using foreign components.”

At a hearing last Friday by the House Armed Services Committee on the Air Force’s fiscal year 2015 budget request, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James about the reliance of the Air Force on the Russian-manufactured engine. James stressed there had been a long-running and good relationship with Russia regarding supplies of the engine, and that there was a two-year supply of RD-180 engines stockpiled in the US, but that a study was warranted. “It is something we have to keep our eyes on, and I do want to review it,” she said.

While many are concerned with the potential loss of access to the RD-180 engine should the situation worsen, one pundit is not that concerned. “If Putin does threaten our rocket shipments, we can dip into the two-year store that has been stockpiled for just such an occasion,” writes Josh Gelernter in National Review on Friday, adding that SpaceX can pick up the slack with its Falcon rockets. Gelernter, in his essay, seeks to use the crisis to reinvigorate American space efforts, arguing that the money currently being paid to Russia for Soyuz seats to and from the International Space Station be used to accelerate development of domestic crew vehicles, even if that means temporarily losing access to the station. “If push comes to shove, though, the cost of two years without an American on the ISS is much less than the cost of an unfettered Russia recapturing Eastern Europe.”

44 comments to Pentagon confirms study into reliance on RD-180 engine underway

  • Jim Nobles

    If the USAF really thinks the RD-180 might become an embargoed commodity they will almost certainly call dibbs on the remaining stock in the USA. Thus the engines wouldn’t be available for CST-100 and Dream Chaser.

    I don’t really believe ULA can start producing an American made RD-180 (by whatever name) in 24 months.

  • amightywind

    The bad decision making of Lockheed Martin (and Orbital) to rely on Russian engines is coming home to roost. It will cost both companies dearly. The whole idea of EELV was to assure access to space. Much has I can’t stand them, SpaceX will surely benefit.

    I have always believed the US acted far too benignly toward Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Unlike Germany or Japan after WWII, Russia was not humbled. It should have been disarmed and its territory dismembered.

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      That would have triggered a war. Although Russia’s political and economic system had collapsed, it still had a nuclear-armed military that, in the absence of any serious political control, would have responded to the course you advocate by randomly lashing out and would have done incalculable damage to the rest of the world.

      The best thing to have done would have NOT to have immediately looted the country and enabled the concentration of wealth into the hands of the oligarchs. This would have given Russia the chance to form an actual, functioning democracy rather than the current semi-feudal nation dominated by a dozen or so corporate bandit-kings.

    • Reality Bits

      Much has I can’t stand them, SpaceX will surely benefit.

      So you just can’t stand the only supplier with a 100% Made-in-the-USA solution.

      You claim to be a fiscal conservative, so I think you should be ASHAMED of your statement. What is wrong with competition for the EELV? What is wrong with a domestic producer? You were probably against Henry Ford and the Model T!

      So, why didn’t PWR & Aerojet pull a page from the Chinese and duplicate the engine technology. Oh? The coating on the engine bell was too hard to recreate (material and process). How about putting a little skin in the game and invest some corporate $$ instead of waiting for a handout from Uncle Sam. Everyone else has to reverse engineer when something new comes out, heaven forbid that PWR/Aerojet take a little risk and spend some effort on metallurgy and coatings.

      I see SpaceX taking risks and raising nearly HALF-A-BILLION dollars of Private Equity to build both an LV and spacecraft (with margins for both re-usability AND crew survivability). They ARE the largest rocket engine manufacturer on the planet. And now they pull out their actual plan/schedule for an RD-180(ish)-sized Methane/LOX engine for a nine-engine monster. Hey, it’s SpaceX’s money, they can do what they want with it.

      And if they are so wrong, why is Arianespace scrambling to respond to SpaceX?

    • Mader Levap

      “I have always believed the US acted far too benignly toward Russia after the collapse of the USSR. Unlike Germany or Japan after WWII, Russia was not humbled. It should have been disarmed and its territory dismembered.”
      How I can call it anything else than complete, utter drivel? You are detached from reality even more than I thought, and that’s pretty hard thing to do.

  • mike shupp

    Let’s consider a somewhat likelier alternative to Mr Gelernter’s scenario: (A) The Russians call it quits at absorbing Crimea (or at least hold off additional land grabs for a decade or so), and (B) the interval in which the US is absent from the ISS stretches from 2 yearz to 3 to 4 to 5 to …

    Most people, Repulican or Democrat, would be very happy with that scenario. The notion that we should take our “savings” from not using Soyuz flights and plow it into speeding up Commercial Crew launches by SpaceX or some other contractor would strike them as very very peculiar.

    • amightywind

      There is zero chance that Russia will abandon Crimea, any more than they abandoned Abkhazia or South Ossetia. However, the US won’t reach to SpaceX for a ready solution, because they don’t have one.

      • Jim Nobles

        .
        amightywind said, “However, the US won’t reach to SpaceX for a ready solution, because they don’t have one.”

        The F9 v1.1 isn’t ready? Or it’s not at least a partial solution to the USAF’s possible launching woes?

        The FH may not be far behind. It’s basically just an integration problem since all the physical elements have already been built, tested, and flown. Pretty much.

        God bless America. God bless SpaceX. :)
        .

      • Coastal Ron

        amightywind said:

        However, the US won’t reach to SpaceX for a ready solution, because they don’t have one.

        If the U.S. needs crew access to the ISS, SpaceX is the American company that is furthest along, AND is not dependent on the Russian RD-180.

        I’d say they not only have a solution, but the best solution.

      • Reality Bits

        However, the US won’t reach to SpaceX for a ready solution, because they don’t have one.

        Three launches (2 consecutive) are required to certify for competing for EELV missions. The September launch was approved by USAF, awaiting USAF approval of December and January launches. So the F9 v1.1 is only meetings and paperwork away from being certified.

        Delta 4 is able to launch all sized payloads (there is even a ULA plan to build a Delta 4 Super Heavy). Falcon 9/Falcon Heavy will be able to launch all sized payloads (and SpaceX has a plan for their own Super Heavy).

        So we are now back to pre-2006 before Boeing got caught with their hand in the cookie jar (http://www.justice.gov/criminal/cybercrime/press-releases/2003/branchCharge.htm), with some real competition and innovation.

        It is good for the US Government and good for the US Economy to have TWO Made-in-the-USA EELV solutions from two separate companies that can are competitive in the commercial market.

  • He, Josh Gelertner, we should just abandon and ruin for two years minimum all the experiments running on the ISS?! Really?!

    One big reason NASA and now CASIS had so much problem finding customers for ISS research is because of thinking like that. No one wanted to commit to a research facility that the last administration wants to splash into the ocean in 2015. The current administration in December announced it wants to extend the ISS to at least 2024, which would received with universal acclaim by the research community and the spacefaring nations of the world.

    You want to shut down all that. Brilliant. Great way to show the rest of the world we’re a bunch of flakes.

    • Coastal Ron

      Stephen C. Smith said:

      One big reason NASA and now CASIS had so much problem finding customers for ISS research is because of thinking like that.

      Good point. We’re either committed to expanding our presence out into space, in which the ISS is key to doing that, or space is just a place to use as an excuse for pork politics. It can’t be both.

      Something else people should keep in mind is that though we could “abandon” the ISS for a two year period, Russia would likely continue to keep the ISS going with their personnel. How will that look to the world? Talk about emboldening tyrants…

    • amightywind

      You want to shut down all that. Brilliant. Great way to show the rest of the world we’re a bunch of flakes.

      You’re worried about appearances now? You haven’t been observing our foreign policy the last 5 years, have you?

  • MrEarl

    This sure puts SpaceX and Elon Musk in the drivers seat for US access to ISS. They are the only provider not reliant on some Russian part to get crew or cargo to the space station.
    This is important and NASA should be seriously looking into human rating the Delta IV while the Air Force looks into replacements for the Russian Kero/LOX engines. Maybe stepped up work reviving the venerable F1 would be in order.

    • common sense

      There is no inherent technical reason why the ULA vehicle cannot loft a crew. Same goes for F9. “Human rating”…

      I am glad I have seen a change ever so slight in your thinking about the whole thing.

  • Malmesbury

    On man rating -

    F9 was designed as man rated from the start. 1.4x on the structure etc.

    Atlas 5 is in the process if being man rated for Commercial Crew

    Delta 4 isn’t man rated – apart from the structure and the redundancy levels in the electronics, the RS68 is an issue. At start it dribbles hydrogen which causes a funky fireball that NASA doesn’t like and more seriously they don’t like the ablative nozzle.

  • vulture4

    Russian metallurgy remains excellent and is not easy to duplicate. The Delta IV design load factor of 2.5 is perfectly adequate; 1.4 was chosen for the shuttle because it was designed before much computational capability was available and had to cary people the first time. In fact it was insuficiant because o unexpecte loads. Today no one would attempt a vehicle that had not been tested in actual flight multiple times. The Delta should have strain guages on the second stage structure when it carries the Orion to prove that it is really well within the margins for safe flight.

  • Malmesbury

    The big issue with Delta 4 is the engines. RS68 is not man rated.

    NASA would only write a waver for its own vehicles. The waivers for the shuttle were heavier than the stack….

    Politically, man rating Delta 4 runs into the Griffin Corner. The political architecture of Constellation was

    1) You can’t launch people on any existing rocket
    2) Need a cheap man rated rocket – Ares I (giggle)
    3) The development costs of Ares I will reduce the cost of Ares V (giggle)
    4) cancelling Ares V would push the cost of Ares I to orbit (giggle), so the program is protected against being scaled back to LEO only.

    Of course, the total failure of Ares I was the final straw for that plan.
    Ironically, the drive to the Big Orion to make sure of point 1 is slowly killing the Orion program as I write….

    Anyway, if you man rate Delta 4, that puts SLS at political risk.

  • Malmesbury

    Ares 1X was a test of -

    1) A different first stage. 4 self with standard shuttle grain. Dumy 5th seg. Real Ares 1 first stage would have had 5 segs of a different material and a different grain.

    2) interstage was a custom one off for the test

    3) upper stage was a dummy.

    4) avionics were borrowed from the EELV program. Ares 1 real avionics would be completely different.

    So they had a test. In which nothing was a real, final item.

    For the same money they could have man rated Atlas 5 *and* man rated Delta 4, including a regen upgrade of the RS-68. Add in a non insane design for Orion – a re-entry vehicle, not a star ship – no gap.

    • amightywind

      The “X” indicated that it was an experimental prototype, flown for risk reduction purposes. You recall critics claimed that the vehicle would crash into the launch town at liftoff.

      • Jim Nobles

        -
        As I recall the Ares 1-X test didn’t prove anything that hadn’t already been proven in a wind tunnel. And used over $400 million dollars doing it. I think it was mainly just a PR stunt to try and save the project. But that didn’t work out.

        I do remember that someone said that it at least proved that NASA was capable of designing and building something that could get off the ground. Up till then they had basically being flying stuff that their fathers and grandfathers had designed. So there was that, I guess.
        -

  • Andrew Swallow

    Time to prepare a man rating plan for the Delta IV. Having done a lot of work on man rating the Atlas V ULA will at least know the correct questions to ask.

    • Neil Shipley

      Why? Unless you’re looking for redundancy (something that NASA hasn’t worried about in the past) then just go with F9. It’s capable of lifting any of the commercial vehicles.

      • Andrew Swallow

        NASA is learning from its mistakes. Not have redundancy meant that when the Saturn V was cancelled for several years NASA could not launch people into space, until the Space Shuttle was developed. A similar situation occurred when the Shuttle was cancelled.

        Commercial Resupply Services uses 2 different launch vehicles to get to the ISS. Commercial Crew Development is using the same successful method.

        Just consider the major problems NASA would now be having if it had given the Atlas V a monopoly.

        • Neil Shipley

          You’ve got redundancy in Progress / Soyuz and say Falcon 9 / DragonCrew. What I think you’re looking for is competition and additional U.S. capability and in that I agree.

  • vulture4

    Sorry, I mistyped my previous entry. As I meant to say, the NASA requirement for a design load factor of 1.4 is not based on any actual need for the structure to carry a load higher than the design specification. It was intended primarily to provide some margin of safety against errors in the design and manufacturing process, including errors in calculating the actual flight loads and structural strength, at a time when computational fluid dynamics and stress analysis were in their infancy, and a design was needed that would be safe enough to carry a human crew on the very first launch. That said, it was an arbitrary number with no actual analysis behind it.

    With the Delta IVH the situation is entirely different. Flight loads and structural strength can be accurately predicted with modern computational analysis and have been verified in flight. Structural loading data from at least one flight with a prototype Orion capsule will soon be available. There is no logical basis for requiring a load factor of 1.4 for the second stage.

    In any case as Malmesbury points out, NASA never actually follows its own rules. TMK the Shuttle never flew without waivers.

  • Robert G Oler

    this just shows, in its entirety how broken the US military/space industrial complex is. RGO

  • Malmesbury

    Orion will violate man rating rules on its parachutes – current plan is to reduce weight a bit and then write a waiver. A chute fails on landing – well, astronauts have to take risks….

    Ares 1X proved nothing of interest – aside from tall thin rockets can fly. Which was already known. It didn’t retire risk on any of the key points for Ares 1.

    Man rating Delta 4 should happen. Bit won’t. The Air Force doesn’t want NASA fiddling with their rocket, but most importantly, the politics won’t allow it.

    Man rated Delta 4 is a threat to the whole idea of SLS. It would have people asking what the max payload of upgraded Deltas might be, how much they would cost per ton lofted etc…..

  • This present-day imbroglio of dependency on Russia, would have been avoided by NOT having NASA depend upon Commercial Space companies in the first place! What in heaven’s name was Obama & his minions thinking, when they went full throttle at destroying Project Constellation, in 2010?! The President basically destroyed NASA, with the decision to slay the Moon Return goal. Where did THAT decision leave the nation, in terms of its space capabilities? Back to boring business-as-usual, with another long multi-decade rift of LEO-only activity!

    Constellation had the concept of utilizing readily drawable Space Shuttle rocket technology & industrial production facilities, for both its Heavy-Lift launcher (for only launching cargo) and its smaller designated manned-capsule launcher. Continued focus on building the Orion craft & the Ares 1 (OR whatever manned-capsule launcher that might’ve also fit the bill) would certainly have narrowed the supposedly “unavoidable” hiatus gap of American manned launches. This could further have been mitigated by a political decision to have kept the Space Shuttle flying for a few years longer——-even at a presumed lower yearly flight rate. But alas, NO: the powers-that-be steered the space program into the flim-flam scheme of relying upon Commercial Space “providers”, plus they were extremely hasty in getting rid of the Shuttle, and hence, got us into this long-term mess of dependency on Russia.

    By the time the Low Earth Orbit President leaves office, trust me: NOT a single American astronaut will have been flown, on any one of those proposed Commercially-built space crafts!!

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      I suspect they were thinking that there was no point pouring money into a project that, even if it was being given to them for free, it would still have to be cancelled as it was too expensive to fly.

    • Hiram

      “the powers-that-be steered the space program into the flim-flam scheme of relying upon Commercial Space ‘providers’”

      Those ‘providers’ are, in fact, providing. They don’t look to be too flim-flam to me. It’s getting harder to justify this kind of skepticism. Mostly wishful thinking, I guess.

      “By the time the Low Earth Orbit President leaves office, trust me: NOT a single American astronaut will have been flown, on any one of those proposed Commercially-built space crafts!!”

      By the time this President leaves office, trust me: NOT a single American astronaut will have been flown on any NASA developed spacecraft either. Of course, it would not have happened with Constellation either, according to the Augustine assessment. In fact, that won’t happen with a NASA developed spacecraft even in the Presidential term that follows.

      The present day imbroglio of dependency on Russia has NOTHING to do with commercial space. Commercial space has zero reliance on Russia. It is blatantly false that this imbroglio, such as it is, “would have been avoided by NOT having NASA depend upon Commercial Space companies”. That’s just wrong. It would have been avoided with Constellation, sure, but it is also avoidable by use of commercial providers.

      • Crash Davis

        “Commercial space has zero reliance on Russia.”

        As everyone knows, Orbital’s Antares relies on the first stage NK-33 Russian engines, a Ukraine first stage core and propellant tanks, and an Italian Cygnus spacecraft.

        Yep, 100% made in America Cowboy. Sheesh.

        • Hiram

          That’s fair. But Aerojet has complete design documentation and permission to produce these engines in the U.S., though clearly it would be cheaper for the Russians to do it. Even in Russia, these AJ-26/NK-33 engines have been out of production for a long time. In that respect, it’s quite a different situation than with the RD-180s.

          • Andrew Swallow

            … Even in Russia, these AJ-26/NK-33 engines have been out of production for a long time. …

            How many years before the Antares needs new engines?
            Developing the new engines may need putting in the 10 year plans of both NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation.

  • Malmesbury

    Orion alone has had more money spent on it than the entire commercial program crew and cargo. And many more years in Dev than commercial.

    No flight ready manned articles ready.

    A future version may be man rated – when the next president leaves office.

    Back to the topic in hand. A sane capsule design plus man rating the EELVs would have cheaply closed the gap.

    By the end of constellation, Ares 1 first manned flight was slipping to the right faster and faster…. It was getting further away rather than closer.

  • vulture4

    As part of the EELV program, Boeing proposed evolutionary models of the Delta IV to accommodate almost any desired payload, showing how various upgrades to engines, fuel crossfeed, and ultimately larger core stages could be added, while keeping the basic H2O2 booster layout and processing flow. Similar to Falcon upgrade path except for using hydrogen fuel for all stages.

    • Neil Shipley

      Yes but they never did anything about it. SpaceX however has and with their own dime. ULA gave up on commercial and therefore looked for government handouts before they would tackle any new developments, engines or vehicles.

  • vulture4

    “A sane capsule design plus man rating the EELVs would have cheaply closed the gap.”

    Say, wasn’t that the Orbital Space Plane?

  • chriss

    The US can built their own engines but most scientists will tell you how important Russia is in space exploration. Both countries have their own strategic merits which are close to impossible to eliminate. I hate it when politics affect science .feel free to reply on madalachristopher@yahoo.com

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