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.”