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Shelton: time for “pause” in RD-180 debate

A week after Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin ignited a firestorm with a claim that Russia would ban the use of RD-180 engines for launching American military payloads, the head of Air Force Space Command said that operations were proceeding as usual and urged a “pause” in the debate.

“There have been no official pronouncements out of the Russian government on the RD-180. There has been the one ‘twitter’ out of one government official that has caused everybody concern,” said Gen. William Shelton in a press conference at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs Tuesday morning. “It’s time that we all kind of paused and and make sure we understand the messages and make sure we understand where the messages are coming from officially.”

While Shelton appeared to be referring to this tweet from Rogozin, others at the press conference noted Rogozin made the comments at a press conference in Moscow. Shelton, though, said there was still a need to understand the official government position. “I think it’s a time to pause and find out if that’s the official position,” he said. “Right now, I don’t think we have an indication that it really is where the government comes down on this in the long term. And there are other indications that ‘business as usual’ is the state of play with Russian industry.”

Shelton, though, said he personally supported proposals to develop a new large “hydrocarbon boost” rocket engine in the US. “There’s a debate to be had, and I think it will occur over the next four to five months,” he said, noting that while some in Congress support new engine development (there is language to that effect in the House defense authorization bill), other, unnamed people in government don’t necessarily agree. Shelton added that he supported development a new engine development, helping support the space industrial base, over co-production of the RD-180 in the US. “All of the studies we did in the past indicated that the cost to co-produce versus the cost of developing a new engine were about in the same ballpark,” he said.

Shelton also addressed the SpaceX launch competition controversy, saying that the Air Force was committed to competition and getting SpaceX certified. “When you’re spending $60 million and putting 100 people against the problem to get somebody certified, it’s hard to say you’re excluding them,” he said of the Air Force’s investment in getting the SpaceX Falcon 9 certified. He added that he thought it would be difficult to accelerate the certification process, which won’t be done before the end of the year, “and I think SpaceX would have a hard time going faster than they are now.”

As for the SpaceX lawsuit, Shelton said this: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.” But as others have noted, contract protests and other suits over government business are hardly uncommon in the industry.

35 comments to Shelton: time for “pause” in RD-180 debate

  • reader

    Large hydrocarbon boost ? Well, the RBS program was well on its way with all of the domestic propulsion and launch industry cooperation. It was promptly shut down.

    What, if anything of that effort, has been carried forward by DARPA with the XS-1 program is anyones guess – although Shelton probably would know.

    In any case, there is a myriad of half completed hydrocarbon engine or HC development projects around eveywhere, it just takes someone ( not necessarily government ) to cough up the cash – SpaceX has, for their Raptor.

    For anyone interested in reading the industry presentations about the state of the art pre RBS shutdown – http://bit.ly/RS3d4O

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “What, if anything of that effort, has been carried forward by DARPA with the XS-1 program is anyones guess”

      None. XS-1 program explicitly rules out new engine development. They want to utilize existing engines in order to get a reusable booster tested ASAP.

    • Robert Clark

      Thanks for that link to the Air Force’s “reusable booster system” program. That would be an expensive system to implement in its entirety. What we need now are just the engines that were to be used. A lot of development went into them a decade ago. We could have RD-180 replacements more quickly and cheaply if we completed those developments.
      Do a google search on “TR-107 engine” and “RS-84 engine”.

      Bob Clark

  • Coastal Ron

    Russia (i.e. Putin) has the luxury of making statements that may or may not end up being official policy in order to “test the waters” and see what the reactions are. I think General Shelton is right is taking stock of what so far has turned out to be real, and what is so far bluster.

    Not to say we shouldn’t plan for the worst, but Russia certainly has as much or even more to lose from an escalation of the RD-180 situation, as well as the ISS partnership too.

    I don’t see the need for a new rocket engine, especially one funded by the government that specifically benefits only one company. Oh sure, supposedly it would be usable by any U.S. company, but how many new rocket designs are started every year (heck, every decade) that could make use of an Atlas V-sized engine? So let’s not fool ourselves here, this would be a direct benefit to ULA (i.e. Boeing and Lockheed Martin).

    If the Air Force wants to continue to have redundant access to space, which is a good thing, then all they have to do is accelerate the certification of the Falcon Heavy. That’s it. And since they would have been spending money to certify the Falcon Heavy at some point anyways, this is essentially a ZERO cost solution for the Air Force. That means the Atlas V situation becomes a third assured access to space system, and no longer the 2nd along side Delta IV. And if ULA wants to fund the development of a new engine for the Atlas V, then they can fund it from internal funds, and not ask the U.S. Taxpayer.

    ULA is already accelerating Delta IV production, just in case something does happen to their supply of RD-180’s, so it’s not like this isn’t something a supplier shouldn’t normally take on themselves anyways. ULA can no longer assume they will be the monopoly provider of launch services to the U.S. Government, and that they need to start functioning like a business that’s operating in a competitive marketplace.

    • reader

      ULA cannot do engine development by their own charter. They are chartered to operate the launch vehicles.

      Boeing and LM could, if they wanted to.

      • Coastal Ron

        reader said:

        ULA cannot do engine development by their own charter. They are chartered to operate the launch vehicles.

        Quite right, but that is an artificial limitation imposed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. I could care less about the machinations they had to go through in order to come to an agreement between them to create their monopoly (i.e. ULA).

        Boeing and LM could, if they wanted to.


        Although their natural business instincts are not to cooperate with their biggest corporate competitor, which is yet again something I could care less about.

        And since they have more enough corporate funds to risk on this relatively “small” development effort, all the more reason the government has no need to provide any funding – the government should only do what individuals or companies cannot do. Boeing and Lockheed Martin clearly CAN fund this.

        • reader

          Under the current structure, i see little incentives for Boeing or LM to act alone for improving the EELVs – why would Boeing invest only to have LM benefit from the joint venture or vice versa.
          The only real solution would be breaking up ULA, but that’s not in the cards.

          ULA people are in the crosshairs, and they have been put in a pretty difficult corner. Only the government powers that originally created their gridlock have the power to undo this.

          • Coastal Ron

            reader said:

            ULA people are in the crosshairs, and they have been put in a pretty difficult corner. Only the government powers that originally created their gridlock have the power to undo this.

            No, the government only gave permission for the merger. Only Boeing and Lockheed Martin can figure this out – and as you point out they may not have any incentive to do it as a joint venture. So be it. They are the ones that are benefiting from it, so they can take on the responsibility that comes with it.

            If they can’t figure it out on their own and ULA suffers it will be because of it’s parents, not Russia or the U.S. Government.

  • Jim Nobles

    “I don’t see the need for a new rocket engine, especially one funded by the government that specifically benefits only one company.”

    Agreed, ULA has gotten enough money from the taxpayer to pay for one. The idea that they should get even more extra money is grotesque.

    I don’t think they’ll pay for an engine out of their own pockets though. I think they’ll milk the taxpayer for as much money as they can until the supply of cheap foreign engines stops then they’ll bow out. By then we’ll probably know whether other commercial options are better than the Delta IV. We’ll see what happens but unless something really game-changing occurs I don’t think ULA will be competitive in a few years.

  • The GAO website lists nine Lockheed Martin federal bid protests since 2013, five for Boeing, and hundreds more for other contractors. All of these are essentially lawsuits against the government.

  • josh

    Shelton is an embarrassment. 60 million and a team of 100 to certify the Falcon 9…That’s 600,000 dollars for each of these geniuses. Waste and corruption in plain sight.

    And we don’t need a new engine when we already have a completely new, better rocket.

    • Coastal Ron

      josh said:

      Shelton is an embarrassment. 60 million and a team of 100 to certify the Falcon 9

      I recently found out that it is not the Air Force doing the real work of certifying, but the Air Force contracts that type of work out to the Aerospace Corp. Related story here:


      • Rhyolite

        That’s not unusually at all. On any given DoD program, most of the “government” representatives will come from outfits like Aerosapce Corp, MITRE and major SETA company like Booz-Allen. It’s basically contractors managing contractors.

    • It seems wasteful that the Air Force is spending so much and taking so long, while NASA has a parallel effort ongoing. I wonder how long and how expensive the NASA effort will be.

      • Neil

        It seems to me that NASA has already certified the Falcon launch vehicle and the Dragon spacecraft and that commercial satellite operators are also satisfied. Therefore, I would be interested in knowing what it is about their certification processes that is so different from the AF that requires a complete separate process?

        • Andrew Swallow

          Also why the certification cannot be done by 3 people in a week. A major program suggests they are doing lots of things that do not need doing.

          Note: Only a person of much higher rank can change the process to something quicker, cheaper and more reliable.

    • Dick Eagleson

      I’ve said it elsewhere and I’ll repeat it here. I think the Aerospace Corp. has more people shuffling paperwork to certify the F9v1.1 than SpaceX used to design the sucker.

  • DocM

    Does it really matter what group we’re paying $600k apiece to do this? It still stinks to high heaven.

  • It is imprudent not to take the threats of the Russian lunatics seriously. THe west lost Crimea because of this. I’ll remind the general that he’s not in the business of taking risks. He’s in the business of mitigating them.

    “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.”

    Welcome to the crony capitalist world of Elon MUsk.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      Welcome to the crony capitalist world of Elon MUsk.

      Don’t be so blatantly ignorant – as pointed out above government contractors (including Boeing and Lockheed Martin) sue the government all the time.


    • Dick Eagleson

      Windy’s got this peculiar idea that Elon Musk and Barack Obama are golf buddies or something.

      • Jim Nobles

        Elon got his picture taken with Obama and they were both smiling. That’s about all it takes for amightywind. Obama and the congress cancelled Constellation and everyone was talking up SpaceX: that caused amightwind to blow a rationality circuit. I’m not really qualified to say but it looks to me like some kind of post traumatic shock syndrome or something similar.

        It’s a shame really, he can make some sense when he’s lucid.

  • Gary Warburton

    The only crony capitalism is what has been happening since the Apollo days among established firms and some governments. Mister Musk certainly has nothing to do with that or he wouldn`t have so much opposition that opposition doesn`t like being exposed.

  • Let LM/Boeing fund a new RD-180 replacement
    I’m sure Shelton would love to keep the Atlas V flying. My response is:
    not one taxpayer dime for an Atlas V specific RD-180 replacement!

    Michael Gass assured the Senate on March 27th, ULA has everything it needs to build the RD-180. Put up or shut up ULA. It’s your Atlas V ULA; you build the existing engine for the Atlas V like you told the senate you could on your dime. You have the manufacturing license until 2022,and can pay Russia to extend the license as required.

    It’s pretty cool to see so many friends from NSF posting here!

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      I have to agree here. It would be nice if the heads of major defence/aerospace companies were made to live by the testimony they so casually give before Congress!

  • DocM

    NSF members repprt rumors of a pending Shelton retiremrnt. It’ll be interesting to see if he finds as comfortable a place to drop his landing gear as the procurement officer that signed the bulk buy. He ended up at AJR, which presents a whole other channel for chatter; a partner in RD AMROSS, ULA supplier etc.

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