In this week’s issue of The Space Review, I provide an overview of the current debate about the RD-180 engine, including a blow-by-blow of the injunction briefly in place that blocked payments to the engine’s manufacturer, NPO Energomash, as well as the provision in the House defense authorization bill that would start work on a domestic replacement; all items previously covered here.
One additional part of the article was discussion about the Defense Department’s study of RD-180 alternatives. Mike Griffin, the former NASA administrator who is now the chairman and CEO of Schafer Corporation, served as deputy chair of the RD-180 Study Group and provided some information about the committee’s work at last week’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting. Since the report isn’t public yet (it will be released soon, he said), he couldn’t go into details about its contents, but did provide some of his own views on the subject.
According to Griffin, the committee did not limit itself to solely studying domestic production of the RD-180, or even a replacement large liquid oxygen/kerosene engine, but also considered options for engines using other hydrocarbon fuels. “God has not published an 11th Commandment on a stone tablet that the hydrocarbon be kerosene, and there are extant now at least two other manufacturers of engines” who expressed interest in participating in any future competition to build such an engine, he said. He didn’t identify those companies, but SpaceX has previously discussed plans to develop an engine called Raptor that would generate several times the thrust of its current Merlin engines, but use methane instead of kerosene.
Griffin said he didn’t doubt that US companies could produce an RD-180 engine. “There’s been enough investment in the US side to replicate the coating and metallurgy technology that goes into the RD-180,” he said. “I think the national-level question is not could we, but should we,” citing the relatively old design of the engine and the fact that the license to produce the engine in the US expires in 2022. “It might be renewed, but maybe it won’t.”
Any decision about producing the RD-180 in the US, or building a large hydrocarbon engine, needs to be part of a broader strategic discussion about national security space launch, Griffin argued. “For national security purposes, we require two independent families of launch vehicles,” he said, referring to long-running national policy. Reality, though, has fallen short of that, he noted, such as the lack of an alternative to the Delta IV Heavy for the largest payloads. “Do we really want to have two families and pay the cost of that?”
“It will ultimately come down to what people—policymakers—decide what they want to have for a national security launch infrastructure.”