Other, Pentagon

Deciding whether, and how, to reproduce or replace the RD-180

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.”

34 comments to Deciding whether, and how, to reproduce or replace the RD-180

  • Bennett In Vermont

    “Do we really want to have two families and pay the cost of that?”

    Mike knows that the answer to his question is “Not if procurement is achieved via the historic Boeing-LM rape-the-nation cost-plus contracting method.”

    But he can’t say that.

    • Jeff

      Apparenly you prefer the endless broken promises of SpaceX? what long-term value is there in that? at least ULA has a long string of success that is unmached in teh history of space, and yes that did come at a price… and it was not a cost-plus contract (check your facts)

      • Hiram

        “… the endless broken promises of SpaceX”

        Oh, you mean the “if you fund commercial crew at the rate you’re telling us you will, we can do this, that, and the other”? Congressional appropriation for commercial spaceflight regularly quashed the budget proposal numbers. Whose endless broken promises are we talking about?

        “… and it was not a cost-plus contract”

        The ULA contracts from USAF came in two flavors, at least through 2013. One was the cost-plus-incentive/award-fee EELV launch capability contract (ELC), and the other the firm-fixed-price EELV launch services contract (ELS). The latter was for LV hands-on hardware construction only. The former was for mission integration, systems engineering, production management, propellants, transportation, and labor to conduct launches. If I’m not mistaken, USAF investment in EELVs was roughly equally divided between these two accounts. The GAO is on record as being dissatisfied with the ELC transparency.

        Re history, check your facts.

        • Jeff

          so much for the folk lore of SpaceX development at private expense… we both can agree that that line of SpaceX hype is totally false, right?!

          (how many SpaceX launches have been to original schedyul… non need to answer, I know it is ZERO. if you only need to have a launch go within 1 or two years of plan, i suppose you can sit and wait on the gound until SpaceX gets around to the launch… now that’s a great way to run a business and save the US Government some really money, right?! (leave it on the ground?!)

          we can also agree that those program shifts, standard in the launch business, certainly had an impact on the cost of ULA’s launch services… right?! absolutely! amazing that SpaceX dosen’t choose to recognize that.

          and you just may be mistaken as you rightfullly suggest, so check your facts

          • Hiram

            “how many SpaceX launches have been to original schedyul… non need to answer”

            If you type more slowly, I might have a clue what you’re talking about. If you don’t chill, you’re going to sound shrill.

            “and you just may be mistaken as you rightfullly suggest”

            I suggested nothing of the kind, and certainly not “rightfullly”.

            We can both agree that your assertions about ULA contracts not being full-cost were made up out of thin air, right!?

            Which “program shifts” are you referring to? To the extent that SpaceX never had any DoD contracts, it’s hard to understand how the cost of their launch services, at least to DoD, could have been impacted by internal program shifts at SpaceX.

            I have a lot of respect for ULA, they’ve done marvelous stuff. And I’m certainly not kissing feet at SpaceX, but you sound like you’re absolutely terrified of them. I hear that Clozaril, and Loxitane work pretty well.

          • Glenn

            Hey Jeff, how do you feel today since Russia announced ban on military use of RD-180 engines? Still feeling right?
            Thank God for the country that SpaceX is there !

            • Neil

              As they say, timing is everything. Elon’s seems to have a gift where that is concerned, right back from when he started his internet businesses.

              • Robert Clark

                As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
                Also BEFORE this Ukranian blow-up, during a TV interview, Elon also said depending on Putin’s good graces for space access is not a good idea.

                Bob Clark

          • Vladislaw

            Forgive me I must have missed it. Which cargo, launched aboard a Falcon 9, was a time sensitive cargo that had to be delievered EXACTLY on a certain launch date or else the mission would have to be scrubbed? When the Airforce has hardware malfunctions and SpaceX doesn’t get to launch, or NASA orders a stand down… I would imagine that is still the fault of SpaceX?

            Which mission of the Atlas V or the Delta IV has been an absolute time sensitive cargo, launch on at an EXACT specific time or else the mission is scrubbed?

      • Bennett In Vermont

        “Apparenly you prefer the endless broken promises of SpaceX? “

        Did I mention SpaceX in my comment?

        I’d suggest meds, or a more capable employer. Such as SpaceX.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    http://www.freerepublic.com/%5Ehttp://rt.com/news/158680-russia-usa-rocket-gps/ — Russia may try to ban the use of its engines for ‘military’ launches; i.e. NRO and military communications/navigation (like GPS). There is also talk of maybe shutting down ISS in 2020.

    In practice, I can’t see how Russia could enforce this without literally cutting off the supply of RD-180s and NK-33s and I’m not sure they’re willing to do that. Additionally, Russia rarely speaks with one voice when it comes to policy (Putin preferring to act rather than speak), so this may simply fade into the ether. On the other hand, no matter how disadvantageous this move would be for Russia, one must never underestimate the ability of a politician’s pride to drive him or her to cut of their own nose to spite their face.

    That said, this could potentially undermine two of the three commercial crew contractors if RD-180 is no longer available for Atlas-V. Delta-IV should be able to pick up most of the satellite slack but is a less reliable vehicle.

    If I were in the launch services department of the NRO of the US military, I would be calling in the highest-level reps from ULA and Aerojet/PWR for urgent consultation.

  • Dmitri, Dmitri, Dmitri …

    We really don’t need you. Your space program needs us. You have no other customers.

    If you want to take your RD-180s and pout, go ahead. You just crashed your engine business.

    As for leaving ISS in 2020 … We only need you for transport, and that will be solved by 2017. We control the station. We own Zarya. If you want to leave, more room for the rest of us.

    Oh, by the way, that ITAR waiver? Say do svidonya to it.

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      Never underestimate just how far whipped-up domestic nationalist furor can drive a government from sensible long-term policies, once it gets rolling. Putin & Co started this process, but if history is any guide soon it may become hard to tell whether they’re driving it, or it them.

      It’s *really* hard to get off that tiger again once you’ve riled it up.

  • Robert G. Oler

    what we should have for the national security launch infrastructure is well a strange notion private industry providing a product to the government.

    Private industry bought us the P51 and the B-17 and the B-52…Soviet style design bureaus have brought us teh F-35, SLS/Orion, LCS the list is endless RGO

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    One thing Griffin says in your Space Review RD-180 piece seems to me disingenuous at best. The dubious assertion is at the end of this excerpt:

    “…but he did offer his own views on the situation, including his belief that developing a replacement of some kind of the RD-180 is not something that can be done quickly. “Anyone who has ever been out on a test stand, testing their own rocket engine, knows that this is, at best, a five- or six-year process to bring it to fruition,” he said of the development time. “And it really doesn’t matter whether you’re producing, or returning to production, an existing design like the RD-180 or building your own.””

    Very true that a brand-new rocket engine needs a lot of testing before it’s ready for reliable routine use. Much as some would prefer to simulate it all then have the hardware behave precisely as planned from the very first build, rocket combustion sims still aren’t there yet. New engines come with surprises that take some (sometimes MUCH) test-stand cut-and-try to clean up.

    Mind, I think that assuming it’ll take five or six years worth of debugging also assumes either a really shaky initial design, or (more likely) a really leisurely cost-plus plenty-o-taxpayer-dollars development process.

    But cloning an existing proven engine, with a known-functional configuration to work toward, taking just as long to debug? Not if you can keep the engineers from “improving” anything in the cloning process. (Admittedly, no trivial matter with the average engineer, but two-by-fours are cheap and a good engineering configuration manager knows how to use one.)

    There still may be small unintentional variances from the original configuration, and one or more of these may turn out to make a critical difference. But chasing down one (or a few) such is a far-less open-ended test process than trying to figure out what tweaks a new design needs to make it behave.

    Sounds to me like Griffin may have an agenda for a new-design engine. Fine with me – but not with my tax dollars, and not when there’s considerable national policy priority to faster results.

    • GG

      For those who haven’t followed the political saga of Constellation and so can’t read between the lines of what Jeff and Henry are saying: Mike Griffin’s opinion is not to be trusted because he’s proven himself to advocate against national interests.

      Griffin is very good friends with MSFC, ULA, and Alabama. He’s one of a handful of people responsible for billions spent on unproductive government projects. The House bill directly benefits his interests. Not everything wrong in politics is illegal. They’re just very good friends. Very. Good. Friends.

    • Andrew Swallow

      The Russians have ‘forgotten’ to deliver details of the coating on the RD-180 engine. This makes it difficult for US firms to manufacture identical copies. However the USA almost certainly makes high temperature oxygen coatings of its own. These can be tested to find one that works. The reduction in payload mass will have to be revealed.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “One thing Griffin says in your Space Review RD-180 piece seems to me disingenuous at best.”

      It’s worse than that. I’ve heard from two separate sources that Griffin has his hand in the till on Dynetics’ work to resurrect F-1 for the SLS booster. Not surprising given Steve Cook’s installation at Dynetics, and the quid pro quo professorship that Griffin got at UofA from Shelby. It’s sad that the DOD/USAF would be stupid enough to have Griffin vice-chair this study with such a blatant conflict of interest.

  • Fred Willett

    Building a replacement RD-180 may be exactly the wrong path to take.
    Say you build a replacement engine. At the end of the day you have a working Atlas V exactly like you have today.
    But you’re then five years down the track. Falcon 9 is certified and eating your lunch at the lower end of the market. Falcon Heavy is flying, certified and eating your lunch at the upper end of the market.
    ULA needs a new engine and a new vehicle that can compete directly with SpaceX and offer some hope of competing in a reusable manner if SpaceX does manage to get that working.
    It’s not impossible.
    There is no great secret about what SpaceX has done.
    1/ Optimize for cost at every point.
    2/ build to a margin of 1.4 instead of the usual LV margin of 1.25. (They claim this is for human rating, but personally I think it’s about reusability as much as anything)
    3/ KISS.
    Atlas V is a great vehicle now. In 5 years it will be sadly out of date. Dump it when the engines run out. Use Delta IV till the new rocket is ready and start designing now.

    • Hiram

      “Building a replacement RD-180 may be exactly the wrong path to take.” “At the end of the day you have a working Atlas V exactly like you have today.”

      Exactly. RD-180 is a twenty+ year old engine. It might take several years more to qualify an American version. By that time, technology developments should allow substantial improvements. Merlin is there for LOX/RP-1, and Raptor is coming along for LOX/LM.

      Atlas V is of questionable affordability now. Why is it going to be any better in a few years with a new cloned engine that presumably presents the same operational requirements?

    • Michael Kent

      ULA will not be building a new rocket to compete with SpaceX. They can’t. They exist only to build and operate the Atlas V and Delta IV.

    • Neil

      ULA can’t build a replacement engine or vehicle since this is not in their charter. Only Boeing or LM can do these if they see fit or the government decides to fund them. If history is anything to go by, then it’ll be the latter.

      • Andrew Swallow

        Boeing and LM are both large defence suppliers. Lifting the restrictions on ULA amounts to the directors at Boeing and LM signing a piece of paper. There are Air Force Generals that can (initially) suggest they sign it.

        If ULA fails to meet its contract there will be some small print that allows the DoD to bar ULA for bidding for the new launch vehicle development contract. It may even stop Boeing and LM.

        Payloads can be transferred to SpaceX and possibly Orbital plus the Delta IV.

      • Fred Willett

        George Sowers (ULA) said over on NASA Spaceflight where he has a thread going to blast SpaceX said;
        ULA is faced with some serious problems. 1) The cost structure of our company is not optimum for commercial competition. 2) Alternative engine. We are working hard on both problems.
        There are no guarantees that they can solve these problems, but being aware of the problems and trying to fix them are a very good start.

  • Fred Willett

    Another problem the Atlas V has is that it is a “Dial-a-rocket” with 20 or so possible permutations. The idea being that whatever your payload you can get a “Bespoke” LV to match.
    It’s inherently expensive.
    SpaceX’s “one size fits all” approach is cheap.
    That’s what ULA has to compete with. They need to change.

    • Neil

      They can’t significantly since they have to respond to their two parent organisations.

      • Fred Willett

        ULA is in deep trouble. If Boeing and LM do nothing ULA dies. ULA knows this (see my previous post quoting George Sowers. He knows he’s got problems).
        In order to let ULA compete Boeing and LM are likely to let ULA recapitalize itself. After all it’s better to write down their investment than loose the lot. Who knows, LM & Boeing may even choose to put in some chips of their own.
        Anyway there are options. You can bet ULA is exploring them and at the end of the day ULA is likely to survive.
        Can ULA move quickly enough to remain competitive in a rapidly changing market is the question.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    Right now, I think that ULA’s strategy is to close their eyes tightly and wish the problem will just go away. I don’t think an alternate motor for the Atlas-V core can happen in anything less than five years. I’m pretty sure that the Russians will allow NASA and CCT flights on the type (assuming this doesn’t turn into a full-on embargo) but that’s not a majority of Atlas-V’s work.

    Aerojet/PWR’s top executives are going to be visiting the Pentagon soon and asked some very, very pointed questions about ‘when, how much and why’. What options are there?

    * US-built RD-180 – iffy because I’m not sure if the metallurgy has ever been duplicated;
    * AJ-26 family – Once again, this depends a lot on how far Aerojet have got in duplicating NK-33 and, most importantly, how far off of ‘hypothetical’ AJ-26-500 has got.
    * Dynetics F-1A and derivatives – Very, very far away in terms of schedule and price.
    * SpaceX Raptor – Once again, very, very far away.

    • Dick Eagleson

      Re: BR-G’s four options:

      US-built RD-180: Even with the metallurgy fully in-hand, legacy aerospace couldn’t reverse-engineer this engine in a hurry (ca. 24 months – the interval ULA says their stockpile of RD-180’s will cover). They already say they need five years. I’m inclined to believe them. If the metallurgy isn’t in-hand, as is widely rumored, then tack on still more time. As noted by many others, by the time this engine could reasonably exist, it would be hopelessly obsolete. NASA, DoD, USAF and NRO will have long since made other arrangements – F9 and FH – to get their birds up. Atlas V will be Rip Van Winkle. Naturally, this is the option Congress looks increasingly ready to mandate.

      AJ-26 family: Given that legacy aerospace has all the rights to this engine, cloning it would probably not be doable on a schedule much better than the RD-180 knock-off. Still, it would be a lot more worthwhile. The NK-33/AJ-26 is a lot smaller than the RD-180 and could be clustered (4 engines) to make an F9-class booster and (12 engines) to make an FH-class heavy that could both follow in SpaceX’s clustered, fault-tolerant, potentially reusable footsteps. It represents no option when it comes to saving the Atlas V, of course. Ironically, it may not have a future even with its original customer. Since Orbital’s recent merger with ATK, the inside track for Antares re-engineering seems to be a big, new ATK solid. There is a high probability the NK-33/AJ-26 will once again slip into the shadows of history.

      Dynetics F-1A/F-1B: A single, non-throttleable, monster engine is not what’s needed. These beasts are about twice the size of what an Atlas V is currently built to handle and have no clusterability or reuseability hooks unless used in some future BFR. Nobody’s going to spec-build a Saturn V-plus BFR except SpaceX. After SpaceX does it and proves out a market, a competitor based on this class of powerplant might have a viable future. Keep the blueprints in a safe place, but don’t figure on dusting them off any time soon. Legacy aerospace is not the place from which to expect bold ventures. They might or might not be able to follow, but leadership is no longer in their DNA.

      SpaceX Raptor: No way to be sure how long this beast will take to fully prove out, but it’ll be in subsystem tests at Stennis fairly soon and might even be testable as a full-up unit within two years. Again, Raptor represents no solution to ULA’s RD-180 problem, but of all the options here considered, the Raptor is the only one that has metal already bent and the firmest commitment from its developer to follow through. We’ll see the Raptor in series production, crated and ready to go before we see any of these other potential engines realized.

  • numbers_guy101

    It is amazing how much trash talk goes around on these sites, versus how few numbers or facts, and even less comparatively, or how the rocket business’s perspective forgets very similar situations in outside industries. The US has seen all flavor of odd markets, monopoly situations, breakups and mergers, in sectors from rail, to air, to communications. The shifts in thinking that are occurring within NASA, industry and among stakeholders were inevitable, and a long time coming.

    My first encounter seeing the lack of desire of our industry counterparts to compete with each other was back in the Shuttle days when the largest contractual consolidation of the Shuttle program began. I was younger and naive and thought the competition would force many improvements that I had seen stymied under the existing contracts. You’ll imagine my surprise when the large players joined up as United Space Alliance. I thought, they are refusing to compete! In any other industry that would have been called a “refusal to deal”, a per se antitrust violation. In our industry I was odd man out, instead seeing everyone embrace the “potential savings”, the “simplicity”. The savings never came, and the program became even less able to efficiently do upgrades or anything related to costs going down and safety going up.

    And here we are again, debating ULA, engines, new players and competition. Most of the arguments devolve into trash talk, here in forums. That’s to be expected. Far worse, I see the same vein of chatter and useless debate among internal NASA and industry groups, projects and organizations. This is not a good sign.

    Perhaps it’s just the way of things. There are still people upset about the breakup of Ma’Bell. There are still industries (like cable TV) that place endless energy and resources toward maintaining monopoly conditions, with a government blessing, rather than competing in truly open markets. And here we are, as well. I suppose that after the end of ULA like arrangements, once the launch market, and many other space markets, get truly competitive, healthy, and decide what they want to be when they grow up, that people will still be angry over what happened, and write alternative histories about it all. Much like you still find books about how the breakup of Ma’Bell was a bad thing.

    Monopolies never go down easy. What was the phrase…?
    “A people should know when they are conquered. Would you Quintus? Would I?”

  • Robert Clark

    Back in 2009 when the Obama administration was considering producing a heavy lift kerosene engine there was talk of resurrecting the proposed, reusable RS-84 engine. This article from 2003 said it would take until 2007, 4 years, to produce it:

    RS-84 Engine Passes Preliminary Design Milestone.
    Huntsville – Jul 16, 2003
    “The RS-84 is one of two competing efforts now under way to develop an alternative to conventional, hydrogen-fueled engine technologies. The RS-84 is a reusable, staged combustion rocket engine fueled by kerosene — a relatively low-maintenance fuel with high performance and high density, meaning it takes less fuel-tank volume to permit greater propulsive force than other technologies.”

    Unfortunately it was cancelled in 2004 after the SLS was decided upon. But if all the development materials and designs from then were saved and assuming there was actual 1 years further development up to 2004, then conceivably development could be restarted and completed in just 3 additional years.
    In any case I’d like to see a study done to see how long and how much it would cost to complete its development.

    Bob Clark

  • dwight looi

    The entire discussion should not be about replacing the RD-180, rather it should be about replacing the Atlas V.

    Let’s face it, if you put a new engine on the Atlas V that is NOT the RD-180 it’ll have to be re-certified. If that engine uses a different fuel it’ll have to be re-tanked and re-certified. Basically, it’s as much an Atlas as the Atlas V was an Atlas II when they went from balloon tanks and dropping two of three RS-56 engines on the way up to using a single Russian engine with a rigid tank. It’s an Atlas in name only.

    The discussion should really be whether the USA should default to using just the Delta IV, or using the D-IV and having Lockmart develop a new launch vehicle using a new engine, or using the D-IV and using SpaceX’s Falcon family, or all of the above at different points in time.

  • dwight looi

    This is what I think the USA space program (overall) should pursue…

    ● Settle of ONE fuel booster type and ONE upper stage fuel type
    ● Build at least TWO engines of each type
    ● EVERYTHING uses these engines, period.

    For a first stage booster engine the fuel can be RP-1/LOX or CH4/LOX, let’s just pick one. Let’s say we pick RP-1/LOX. The next thing is to design at least two engines around this fuel. One can be the RS-84, the other can be an F-1A derivative, yet another can be a Merlin 2. Then let’s make the engine interfaces uniform and interchangeable. Now let’s make the Delta V, Atlas VI, SLS core booster, SLS strap-ons and maybe even the SpaceX Falcon 2.0 compatible with the any of these engines. A Delta, SpaceX and Atlas may each use one engine. The SLS may use 4 in the core and 1 in each liquid boosters. Basically, if there is a grounding due to an engine issue, everything can fly on the other engine(s).

    The same thing goes for upper stage engines. Basically, you can have a J-2X, two RL-60s or a bunch of RL-10Xes. And, make it such that basically you can switch launch vehicle chassis and keep the engines or vice versa.

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