Pentagon, White House

RD-180 report recommends development of domestic replacement engine

Despite comments made last week by Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin that Russia would ban the use of the RD-180 engine to launch US military payloads, an Atlas V 401 rocket, powered by such an engine, lifted off Thursday morning from Cape Canaveral carrying a classified payload for the National Reconnaissance Office. That doesn’t mean, though, that the government isn’t worried about what would happen if the engine became unavailable.

“Impacts of an RD-180 loss are significant, and near term (FY14 – FY17) options to mitigate them are limited,” the RD-180 Study Group, sometimes called the Mitchell Report after its chair, retired Air Force H. J. “Mitch” Mitchell, stated in a summary presentation not formally released yet by the Defense Department but widely passed around the space industry this week. The report noted that there are 38 Atlas V missions on the manifest (presumably including the NROL-33 that launched this morning) but only 16 RD-180 engines stockpiled in the US.

The report estimated impacts of the loss of the RD-180 at between $2.5 and 5 billion, depending on when Atlas V launches ended and how payloads were transferred to Delta IV vehicles. That transfer would result in both additional expense and delays, the report summary noted, since United Launch Alliance “cannot ramp up Delta production fast enough” to avoid delays of, on average, 2 to 3.5 years. A new entrant (unnamed in some of the summary’s slides but clearly SpaceX) would not be able to pick up the slack, either, the summary noted. In a scenario where no more RD-180s are available, the summary states the “need to reassess” EELV competition and acquisition strategies.

The committee offered several recommendations, including accelerating purchases of RD-180 engines from Russia, but did not recommend starting domestic co-production of the engine: “Doable but does not improve the current situation,” the summary stated. It instead recommended, regardless of the availability of the RD-180, development of a new large liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine. That work should be led by a joint Air Force/NASA program office, the summary stated, and “could be available” by fiscal year 2022.

The report, a White House official said Wednesday, will factor into the administration’s discussions regarding the future of the RD-180 and development of a new engine, but no immediate decisions are forthcoming. “All those results just came in last week, and we’re going through them, both with DOD and with NASA,” Richard DalBello, assistant director for space and aeronautics at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a luncheon speech Wednesday at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. “We’re going to be doing an assessment of where we’re going to go, but right now no decisions have been made.”

DalBello, like Gen. William Shelton on Tuesday, also sought to play down the comments by Rogozin. “There’s been a lot of hyperbole and there’s been a lot of breathless writing on this topic,” he said. “Go read the words of what the men are actually saying and I think you’ll find it’s a little bit calmer.”

DalBello specifically recommended that people read the transcript of Rogozin’s May 13th remarks. Those words, though, may not be that reassuring to some. “I would like to confirm the statement made by [Roscosmos chief] Mr. [Oleg] Ostapenko and to say that, indeed, we will proceed from the fact that we can no longer deliver these engines to the United States, and that we can no longer maintain and repair previously shipped engines, unless we receive guarantees that our engines are used only for launching civilian payloads,” Rogozin said in the official English-language transcript. “We need these guarantees. It would be strange if Russian money and brains were used for launching military payloads that would help in various unclear space projects.”

39 comments to RD-180 report recommends development of domestic replacement engine

  • E.P. Grondine

    Aside from other considerations, Glushko’s engine is 20 years old.

    The US should have had a replacement engine ready to go a long time ago.

    The reason we don’t was ATK, and the folks on the Hill know this.

    Bolden has continued to help ATK in the SLS booster competition.

    Right now we should be working on a fly-back first stage from ULA to support our sat industry.

    Whether we will or not depends on ATK/Orbital and SpaceX.

    • The decision to use the RD-180 on Atlas III and V dates back to the mid 1990’s and has nothing to do with ATK. Atlas V uses Aerojet SRMs. It was a bad decision back in a time when most people had a rosy view about the end of the cold war and pillaging Russian tech. The more vigilant among us criticized this as short sighted, and right we were. We are paying the price now. Lockmart needs to suffer for this.

      • Dick Eagleson

        LockMart is already suffering. It will suffer more. Gen. Mitchell says ULA only has engines enough on hand to launch 40% of its upcoming Atlas V manifest. Even if the taxpayers get stuck with the bill for developing a new large LOX-kerosene booster engine, the legacy engine makers won’t be able to field anything soon enough to save LockMart’s half of ULA. While SpaceX and Orbital were engineering rockets, ULA was engineering a block buy cookie jar for itself that is now going to be broken open and shared around. As ULA’s current troubles are almost entirely the fault of the LockMart half of the combine, I don’t see Boeing being willing to keep the same arrangements in place going forward. Boeing’s piece of ULA still has value. LockMart’s piece is looking increasingly like a dead loss. As of now, there looks like little point in keeping ULA together. If, as I think it will, ULA comes apart, most of the fallout will be on the LockMart side. I agree with you that it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys.

  • MattW

    “We need these guarantees. It would be strange if Russian money and brains were used for launching military payloads that would help in various unclear space projects.”

    I think “unclear space projects” probably included a transcription note that was lost in translation. Непонятный could mean “unintelligible”, in which case he originally may have said “сраный”.

    • Egad

      After some searching, I found the quote in Russian:

      Будет странно, если за деньги и интеллект российских людей будут выводиться военные нагрузки, которые будут потом использоваться для проведения всевозможных непонятных для нас действий из космоса.

      The part in bold is, more or less, “for carrying out all sorts of actions from space that we don’t understand.”

      So I don’t think “unclear” is too far off the intended meaning.

      • К Лундерман

        I think it translates most smoothly as “for carrying out all sorts of actions in space that are incomprehensible to us.”

        • Egad

          Not to get into any linguistically deep waters, but wouldn’t your suggested translation correspond more to непонимаемых для нас действий в космосе?

          If I were forced to be interested in this, I’d wonder why Rogozin said из космоса (from space) rather than в космосе (in space). The “из seems to indicate a space-to-earth emphasis rather than simply in-space.

          But I don’t think the text really merits such weighty analysis.

    • If you are going to write Russian Pig Latin, be kind enough to provide a translation.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    No great surprise. It’s just a shame that it’s taken the threat of Putin yanking the rug out from underneath ULA’s feet that have driven the decision-makers to actually grasp this particular nettle.

  • reader

    How about honest competitive procurement of a hydrocarbon engine, then ? Even better, a fly-off ? And why on earth would not Lockheed-Martin foot the bill, its their vehicle ?

    Supposedly we have all this great industry talent and capabilities around ..

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      Honest competitive procurement of a new booster engine would certainly be a refreshing change from what we’re likely to get.

      I’m not sure how we get there from here, though. The remains of the traditional US rocket propulsion vendors have been consolidated under Aerojet, and while there are promising new US propulsion teams, they’re all in-house teams for vehicle companies.

      Meanwhile, both USAF and NASA propulsion bureaucracies have been ossifying for decades and wouldn’t recognize a non-traditional approach if it bit ‘em. Both effectively now are incapable of conceiving of any other approach than shoveling billions to Aerojet.

      Reforming massive sclerotic bureacracies is a mug’s game. Far easier to bypass them.

      We would probably be better off doing competitve procurement of a new booster rather than a new booster engine. That would allow new entrants who wanted to bypass the traditional tarpits via non-traditional propulsion developments to do so. I could see this approach drawing in SpaceX (of course) but also OSC/ATK, in addition to trad-path developments from Lockmart, Boeing, or (via ULA) both.

      • Neil

        No SpaceX wouldn’t be interested in a Kerolox engine. Their plan has moved past those and they entered their next phase which is a lander i.e. Dragonfly test vehicle, and Raptor Methalox.

        • Henry Vanderbilt

          “Competitve procurement of a new booster”. Didn’t say anything about a Kerolox engine.

          • Neil

            That’s true, you didn’t and I assumed that a replacement for RD-180 would be a Kerolox however even if it isn’t SpaceX won’t be interested mainly because it will utilise resources they can use for THEIR plan; won’t be theirs to do with what they want; and most likely isn’t on their roadmap anyway.

            • Henry Vanderbilt

              We’re obviously coming at this from very different assumptions. Let me explain mine.

              If you step back a bit, the panic is not over lack of RD-180’s, it’s over lack of the Atlas 5 boosters RD-180 powers.

              If in fact that’s a critical lack in the coming years, and if our one remaining large engine vendor and two large propulsion bureaucracies can’t (as I suspect) be relied on to deliver a new large engine on a timely and affordable basis, then perhaps those bureaucracies can be bypassed and that vendor forced into a competitive situation to sharpen it up via a competition for a successor to Atlas 5.

              Such a competiton if run sensibly would not in any way preclude the winner from also using the new booster for other missions. Creativity in this regard should in fact be made an essential part of winning.

              In case it’s still not clear, I am NOT talking about a classical government design-bureau-run “competition” where cost-plus vendors vie to see who can best please the bureaucracy. Write a one-page spec for the results wanted and see what bids come in that might most affordably produce those results.

              • Neil

                Ok fair enough. If your suspicions are correct, and I tend to agree here, then it’ll all be moot anyway. FH will be flying and Raptor will be well on the way to being delivered. SpaceX may (and it’s a big may) be persuaded to sell this engine if there’s no other equivalent available.

                I sorta think that SpaceX is going to gain pretty much a monopoly on the launch business world-wide. There are currently no indications that anyone is going to be able to match them (subject to government subsidies – which are going out of style) and for those companies attempting to do so, the timelines are too long, eg. ESA. This is all subject to SpaceX managing to deliver their products reliably and on schedule – still a challenge for them.

                In addition, Musk is becoming political. It’s taken a while but he now seems prepared to take the fight up to the competition and the politicians which was something he wasn’t doing a while ago. Also he’s getting his message across and gaining greater traction which is also something new.


              • Dick Eagleson


                Your take is pretty much mine with a few minor mods; SpaceX runs the table and winds up, over the next few years, with most of the private launch business worldwide, plus nearly all the U.S. government launch business.

                I don’t see ULA being able to cope with either recent Russian moves or with SpaceX. They can’t copy SpaceX’s vertical integration model and their traditional model no longer works. Even should the government hand them a free new engine – in five or six years – they won’t resurrect or replace Atlas V in any meaningful way and that will doom the combine well before then. To the extent Boeing wishes to make any continuing go of Delta IV, they’ll do it by shucking off the dead husk of ULA and taking it back in-house. Even under these circumstances, Delta IV’s long-term viability looks bad.

                The Europeans are in a complete state of funk, torn, as they are, between realizing they must be cost-competitive and also realizing that European launcher production depends crucially on mercantilist politics of an unyielding, but fragile, nature. The all-solid Ariane 6 will make the French happy, but leave the Germans out in the cold. A liquid-fueled booster design would placate the Germans, but cut critically into anticipated French economies of scale for French dual-use solids (Ariane 6 and next-gen strategic missiles). I don’t think this conundrum has a solution with real roots. Ariane 5, even with planned improvements, is a hopelessly uneconomic dead end.

                The Russians (ILS) are till being plagued with quality and reliability problems. Proton is, literally, a dice roll; one in every dozen or so of them blows up or otherwise fails. The now virtually all-Russian Sea Launch platform is, if anything, worse. Recent efforts to re-state-industrialize the Russian space sector will make the old commies now running Russia again feel better, but it won’t solve any problems.

                SpaceX pretty much has no near-term competition at this point. The only potential competitors on the horizon are Orbital and Stratolaunch. Orbital will have to re-engineer the entire Antares first stage to get something producible over the long term. They seem interested in doing so and the recent ATK merger gives them at least one solid option (pun intended). If they do so, they could give SpaceX some competition, a few years, hence, for low-end national security launches, Delta II-class NASA payloads and, of course, ISS resupply, assuming ISS doesn’t go in the drink in the meantime.

                Orbital also has a stake in Stratolaunch’s success and would be the major co-beneficiary of that effort. By the time Stratolaunch is operational, SpaceX should have Falcon Heavy in service with both F9 and FH first stages routinely reusable. Stratolaunch will not be anywhere near competitive with SpaceX across the latter’s entire range of launch capabilities, but it will have competitive niches. One of them might turn out to be launching constellations of smallsats/cubesats/nanosats into high-inclination low and medium earth orbits.

                As to Musk “becoming political” – yes and no. He’s certainly not doing anything overtly partisan. The rot in NASA and national security launch markets is a model of modern bi-partisan sleaze. So Musk is not playing politics so much as continuing his masterful use of public relations in a more overtly political arena. He’s being opposed in corruptly political ways by his current competitors and he’s simply attacking them with the most effective tools at his disposal.

                In this case, he’s putting on his Jimmy Stewart suit and starring in his own remake of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ with Richard Shelby cast in the Claude Rains part. I think this initiative will prove as successful as his others. Mr. Musk is not only a gifted automotive and rocket engineer, but an obviously skillful political engineer as well.

                His opponents want to keep the whole fight back in the shadows so, naturally enough, Mr. Musk counters by renting klieg lights and putting on a well-lit show in plain view of everyone. He appreciates that one never wins by fighting on ground of one’s opponent’s choosing.

                It’s going to be an exiting and intensely interesting next few years.

      • reader

        Well, OSC/ATK would probably cobble together another frankenrocket with salvaged parts sourced from all over the world and possibly aliens.
        If you have domestic independent propulsion capability, and specifically hydrocarbon booster propulsion in mind, there isn’t much else to do than starting to nurture new companies and groups entering that field as quickly as possible. Facilitate technology and talent transfer both internal and from overseas, subsidies, prizes and nice contracts or whatever it takes.
        Consolidation has taken us where we are today, “de-consolidation” is not a thing, so the only path forward is to regrow.

        • reader

          To expand on this a bit – first step of course is admitting that you have a problem. Lets say that at high level, USAF and NASA and select congressional committees agree that the domestic propulsion industry is in shambles, and something needs to be done to rebuild it to its 60ies era glory.

          Random list of incentives –
          – business financing programs
          – government testing facilities for free or super discounted rates
          – special immigrant status or accelerated visas and green cards for people coming from overseas propulsion companies into domestic, be it from russia, ukraine, japan, china, south korea or whatever
          – graduates with aerospace degrees working N years in a propulsion company will get their student loans erased
          – tax credits for companies and employees

          and so on and so forth. none of this would cost any real money. And then
          – run a small bunch of focused X-vehicle programs with competitive procurement that would act as a constant anchor customer for these companies

          Any sort of hand wringing about foreign engines would be gone in a decade

          • Henry Vanderbilt

            Amen, brother!

            Mind, I’ve been pushing a number of those ideas for decades. (Though I’ll admit I’ve never looked at the angle of pulling in overseas talent.)

            The established players in the current system are pretty hard to get past, thus far. They may be knaves but many of them are not fools; they do a pretty good job of recognizing threats and neutralizing ‘em. My expectation is that this hydrocarbon-boost funding is going to be defended in depth and junkyard-dog intense from any attempt to keep it from being funneled down the usual rathole.

            Still, tell the truth and shame the devil. At some point their track record will catch up with them and new approaches will be possible.

            • reader

              I think the key point in this fight is getting to admission of the problem – and i have not seen or heard a lot of campaigning for that.

              I don’t see space advocacy community running around and saying that our industrial base and talent pool is withered, we have let the industry consolidate too much, there is not enough incentive or opportunity for new entrants to participate. ( because everyone seems forever busy arguing over whether public funds should go to moon, mars or anal probes, or whether launch vehicles should be reusable, expendable or even available in public toilets at all )

              I have never heard John Carmack, Jeff Bezos, Jeff Greason or even Musk or any of these people step up and say – whoa, i never knew how awesome it is to work in Aerospace in U.S. is – as opposed to software or developing VR gadgets for instance.

              • Henry Vanderbilt

                “Let” the industry consolidate too much? Say rather, forced it to, often as deliberate policy – see “defense consolidation” in the nineties, for instance.

                A minority among the activist community has been talking about the problem for decades, for whatever that’s worth. More recently, the Augustine Commission pointed out that the US aerospace vendor base is imploding.

                You are correct that neither the government nor the advocacy community as a whole have done anything unified about that since. Certain small corners of both communities are trying to work the problem.

                The question seems to be, how big a crisis will it take to focus wider attention to the problem? We’ll find out, since we’re due for a series of ever-worse crises till we do finally get serious.

                (The meta-question, of course, is will one of these crises be fatal first?)

            • reader

              Another point as a proof – Google Lunar X-Prize has been a pretty pathetic failure. Did anyone ever get all the leaders of the U.S. based teams in one room and asked – why is it so hard ? Are you lacking talent ? Money ? Suppliers, components ? Facilities ? Access to information ?
              If we put a man on the moon, why can’t we put a tiny robot on the moon ?

              • Neil

                It got down to funding. Surely you realise that by now. That’s why they’ve failed and SpaceX didn’t although they came within a hare’s whisker of doing so.

              • Henry Vanderbilt

                GLXP set their goals too ambitious to be met with the transportation likely to be available at prices implied by the prize. (I told anyone who’d listen so at the time, not that that pays for a cup of coffee.)

                The result has been huge amounts of ingenuity applied to working around the transportation bottleneck. This has resulted in a number of useful advances, so I wouldn’t call the exercise a “pathetic failure”.

                But, as you point out, none of this has resulted yet in winning the prize, simply because they set the bar too high for the size of the prize.

  • Frank N. Stein

    The delusions these people are clinging to runs deep. I’m afraid there is no hope for them, nor the taxpayers and voters that support their incompetence. That would be you.

  • Elon dropped this bombshell last night:

    “Air Forced”

    Calls out a former USAF executive who allegedly made the ULA block buy after SpaceX turned him down for a job, then took a job with Aerojet Rocketdyne.

    • Dick Eagleson

      Customary graft.

    • reader

      Look at it the other way.
      An AF official who has made a career of contrac management is about to leave the organization. Apart from flipping burgers, he does not have THAT many potential employers out there in the first place. I bet he talked to all three of them.

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    So, a joint project between the Air Force’s engine bureaucrats and NASA’s engine bureaucrats, neither known for being on-time or under budget (nor for actually delivering any usable engine at all over recent decades in most cases), with contract undoubtedly going to the last US engine vendor standing, also not know for on-time or under budget, with a sometime-next-decade delivery date and some hundreds of millions a year budget till whenever.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  • Robert Clark

    Other possibilities might be the engines investigated a decade ago for a possible heavy lift booster. Unfortunately they were cancelled in 2004 after the Ares V was decided upon. One such engine was the reusable RS-84. In 2009 when the Obama administration was considering producing a heavy lift kerosene engine there was talk of resurrecting it, but it was cancelled again when the SLS was decided upon. 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.”

    IF development continued for an additional year up to 2004 and IF the development materials and designs were retained, 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.

    Another possibility might be the TR-107:

    NASA invests $21 million in TR107 engine development.
    6 May 2003

    Bob Clark

    • Andrew Swallow

      Did the entire TR-107 ever get hot fired?
      Was the test filmed?

    • reader

      Neither of the SLI engines ever materialized in a completed hardware unit.

      • Ben Russell-Gough

        Which I personally consider a massive lost opportunity; a RS-84/RL-60-based launch vehicle running along the line of Atlas-V Phase-2/3A could have been a quick and easy path to an HLV.

        However, that is just a ‘what if…?’ America has to deal with the reality of today, which is a decimated rocket engine industry and a whole generation of staff at the companies who are mostly only project managers and operations staffers not actual rocket-makers.

  • Andrew Swallow

    How do I report spam on this website?

  • Jim Nobles

    Normally it would be gone by now. I hope everything is ok with Jeff.

  • BRC

    This is a highly unusual SPAM. Most SPAM detection SW look for key “tells”: 1-2 sentences long, $$ figures, key words like “from home”, a website link (typically foreign), etc. But this “SPAM-zilla” is obscenely huge, and no links (unless Jeff’s system auto-filtered them out).

    Still, I can’t help but give at least a smigin of a kudo to those “Crazy shi..t.” Spam-masters for a creatively invasive advert.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>