Congress, Pentagon

Air Force official says RD-180 replacement not a “done deal”

A top Air Force official said Friday that the Defense Department is implementing the near-term recommendations of a recent study regarding the availability of the RD-180 engine used by the Atlas V, but would not yet commit to that study’s long-term recommendation of developing a domestic replacement.

“I think it’s in the mix, but it’s not a done deal that it’s going to happen or not happen, because to go ahead and do it is a very expensive proposition,” said William A. LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, during a question-and-answer session at the end of a talk Friday morning at The Atlantic Council in Washington.

In some of the first on-the-record comments made by DOD officials about the “Mitchell Report” (which was leaked to the media last month but has not yet been formally released by the DOD), LaPlante praised the work by the committee, chaired by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. H. J. “Mitch” Mitchell with former NASA administrator Mike Griffin as the deputy chair. “They did a great job,” LaPlante said of the RD-180 study committee. “They basically gave me and the leadership of the department and also the administration some recommendations.”

LaPlante said the Air Force is already “basically doing” the report’s near-term recommendations. That includes reviewing the current launch manifest to see what missions could be moved off the Atlas V to the Delta IV if the supply of RD-180 engines was restricted. “That happening right now. It’s actually almost done,” he said of that work.

The report’s long-term recommendation called for the development of a new liquid oxygen (LOX)/hydrocarbon that could serve as an eventual replacement for the RD-180. “We’ve taken away from this that the Air Force, along with our partners in OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and the administration and across the space enterprise, including NASA, have to take another serious look at the future of domestic engines.”

However, LaPlante stopped short of endorsing the development of a new LOX/hydrocarbon engine. “I don’t think we know enough yet,” he said. He said that he was open to alternative technical and programmatic concepts, including the use of public-private partnerships to develop such an engine. He also suggested that such a new engine could use different propellants. “There’s some very interesting concepts out there. The Mitchell Commission recommended a LOX/hydrocarbon [engine] as what they thought” should be developed, but “I wouldn’t even box it in at that. I think there’s enough interesting concepts out there.” He didn’t elaborate on what those “interesting concepts” are.

While the Air Force might still be reticent to endorse development of an RD-180 replacement, Congress has been moving forward with legislation that would do just that. Versions of defense authorization bills in the House and Senate would direct work on such an engine, although at different authorized spending levels: $100 million in the Senate but $220 million in the House. Language in the report accompanying the defense appropriations bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee earlier this week would provide $220 million to start that engine work, and require that the engine be ready for launch no later than fiscal year 2022.

32 comments to Air Force official says RD-180 replacement not a “done deal”

  • reader

    “I think it’s in the mix, but it’s not a done deal that it’s going to happen or not happen, because to go ahead and do it is a very expensive proposition,”

    Yeah. One-two billion worst case, with the usual suspects doing it with traditional methods, demonstrated by J2-X.

    That would buy you what, 4 more F-35s or a handful of F-22s. Take a guess whats more relevant for national security.

  • Arnie T

    Early language (not binding I’m sure) stated that the replacement contract would be a full and open competition. The way the AF Sec is dancing around without mentioning SpaceX (Raptor) directly makes me think it will be an open competition between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. BAU! Probably justified by saying that the new engine is for the existing already purchased 36 cores and therefore no competition is required!
    But boy, wouldn’t it stick in ULA’s craw if the Atlas had to fly with a SpaceX Raptor. LOL

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      Aerojet is currently playing this as a chance to replace A5’s RD-180 and Antares’ AJ-26 with a 500Klbf sea-level “AR-1″ engine, to be priced at about $25m a pair. Two would do for an A5, while an Antares might go with one plus small strapons, or two for a stretch Antares booster version. (The current AJ-26 is good for about 330Klbf sea-level; Antares uses two.)

      (They’re also making noises about selling these to SpaceX, but that seems unlikely.)

      They want between $800m and a billion to develop this AR-1, and are explicitly holding out for government development funding.

      My take is, if there’s actually a market, why don’t they develop this on their own dime? Never mind, I answered that question when I typed “Aerojet”.

      Chances are this is what the DOD motor funding will go to, on both lobbying-clout grounds and on it being a better fit for DOD’s immediate needs than Raptor.

      FWIW, my guess is that this AR-1 is related to the 500 Klbf thrust NK-33 derivative they were trying to sell to NASA for SLS advanced SRBs a few years back.

      NK-33 ain’t a bad engine to copy, BTW. T:W almost as good as Merlin, Isp almost as good as RD-180, and apparently it doesn’t require RD-180’s black magic materials to manufacture since it runs the LOX-rich preburner somewhat cooler.

  • Coastal Ron

    Finally some common sense on this matter. It’s not like the Air Force doesn’t have near-term solutions available – Delta IV production can be ramped up, and the Air Force is already reviewing the current Falcon 9 for certification. And once the Falcon 9 is certified, the Falcon Heavy won’t take as much certification effort once it starts flying. That right there, which the Air Force was already planning to happen, pretty much mitigates any engine supply issues the Atlas V may have.

    But if ULA wants to build a new engine for Atlas V, I say they should do it on their own. Because otherwise the government will be paying for a 3rd supplier, which is far beyond their actual need. Essentially corporate welfare.

  • Fred Willett

    LM, ULA and Boeing don’t make engines.
    Aerojet/Rocketdyne and SpaceX are effectively the only 2 large engine manufacturers in the US.
    Raptor, being methane, on Atlas V means a complete redesign of the LV. Practically a new LV with less flight heritage than Falcon 9. ULA won’t want that.
    SpaceX are evolving their launch vehicles are a very rapid rate. If ULA commits to some sort of engine replacement that’s going to take at least 5 years they might wind up with exactly the wrong sort of LV competing against a reusable F9.
    It might make more sense to sit on the fence for a little bit longer and see if SpaceX can make reusability work. Then, if SpaceX succeeds Boeing, LM, ULA will know what they need to do to compete.
    It should all become clear in about 2 years.
    If I were ULA, right now I’d wait.

    • Dick Eagleson

      I think ULA will wait, but because:

      1. They think they can get a free engine out of the government one way or another.

      2. They think their stable of bought politicians can get together, say a magic word and make SpaceX go away.

      I believe they will find they have overpaid for Congressional underperformance.

      I’m pretty sure they’re not saveable, whether they start doing anything right now or not.

  • Arnie T

    Looks like the panic move in Congress to push for a new engine will have the usual effect of forcing money we don’t have to be spent on something we may not even need. If only we wait just a little while for the AF to finish its business with SpaceX, the *problem* will work itself out and the AF/DOD/NSA will have the two suppliers they state want. Personally, I’d much rather have the Good Old Boys miss out on a little largess and the taxpayers see more for their money. But, what do I know?

    Hey Fred, you don’t think SpaceX will pull a Tesla and hand over their reuseability methods do you? ;)

    • Fred Willett

      you don’t think SpaceX will pull a Tesla and hand over their reuseability methods do you?
      ITAR would string ‘em up by their thumbs, unfortunately.

  • Arnie T

    Oops — Edit: ‘they state want’, should be ‘they state they want’

  • reader

    Its amazing how many people think of SpaceX as a solution for everything – even when the problem is clearly having another engine in addition to SpaceX owned design.

    Just put everything on one card, that’s a good solid plan.

    Which is NOT to say that the other usual suspects should be handed out fat multibillion dollars – IMHO the solution is to throw these usual suspects in the water and tell them sink or fricking start swimming. And if you choose to drown, let someone with a bit more clue buy up your assets.

    • Jonathan Tribble

      The US has other engines, the SSME and J2X. They even have another entire launcher, in addition to a private sector reusable launcher. Using the SSME as an upper stage engine is easy, just light it on the ground and strap on a pair of reusable Falcon 9s.

      That’s what they mean by ‘enough concepts are out there’. What is remarkable about all of this, is that despite all the NASA, congressional and executive branch idiocy, and really bad US strategic mistakes, at least for basic launch, the US is still launching. The problem still remains that NASA and the DoD can design launchers, and every time they try to design or fund a launcher it is mishandled by the contractors.

      • Henry Vanderbilt

        “The problem still remains that NASA and the DoD can design launchers, and every time they try to design or fund a launcher it is mishandled by the contractors.”

        I’d put that “every time they try to design or fund a launcher they mishandle the contractors”, but that leaves too little blame for the traditional contractors. The more you look into what the NASA and USAF rocket bureaucracy-contractor complexes have (d)evolved into, the more you realize that screwups of that magnitude and constancy are only achieved by close cooperation over long periods.

      • reader

        The US has other engines, the SSME and J2X

        US has a bunch of Chevy 409ci big block engines around too, does not mean that they are worth anything for a modern car that needs to meet certain criteria relevant in the marketplace, today.

        Which again, is not the same as saying that the people who designed and built the venerable V8s for Chevy are incapable of building a modern engine, when called to the task.

        • Jonathan Tribble

          SpaceX is already designing and building an extremely powerful and efficient methane booster engine. When faced with the choice of another incompetent and disengaged corporation designing yet another hydrocarbon engine, as opposed to using the two hydrogen engines already designed built and tested, guess what engines I would choose? Guess which engines would solve the DoD’s problem faster?

          Like I said, the SSME is an upper stage engine. It just needs to be ground started. Given the large number of credible modern launcher designs that could be built around these engines, it’s no wonder somebody in the DoD is saying Whoa Nelly!

    • Arnie T

      I agree with you completely reader; SpaceX is not the end-all or we could be right back where we want to leave. My point was that I see a panic requiring possibly billions to be spent, and the open competition initially mentioned seems to be forgotten.

  • Fred Willett

    Everything depends on
    1/ SpaceX’s challenge to the block buy. and
    2/ SpaceX’s reusability attempts over the next few months.
    That gives (roughly) 4 possible outcomes.
    1/ If the block buy is upheld ULA can just go on as is till 2020. If they run out of Atlas Vs they can always launch on Delta LVs.
    2/ If the Block buy is over turned then SpaceX can start eating ULA’s lunch from 2016.
    3/ If reusability doesn’t work ULA remains a force in the launch business.
    4/ If reusability works launch costs start to fall and ULA is going to have to scramble to respond or risk going out of business.
    There are lots of nuances possible, of course.
    And then there are Atlas Vs engine problems.
    Interesting times.

    • Robert G. Oler

      In my opinion Fred has pretty much nailed it…the only thing/variable I would add to this is thaat along with reusability SpaceX has got to figure out how to “point and shoot” meaning launch on a regular basis with none of these “hiccups” that postpone launches. if they cannot get to doing 12 in 12 calender months reasonably soon, they are in fact in trouble…because true reusability assumes “fast turns” not rebuilding like the shuttle did. Otherwise I think Fred pretty much nailed it

      We are at an exciting time in space development…particularly in launchers which is the key to any future space effort by humans or even technology use that is much different then ‘yesterday’. SLS/Orion is a clear bet on the past. IE that what we did in the past is the best we can do (long drawn out programs that dont affect society much except in the ephemeral levels of “great America”). Delta/Atlas are sort of a bet on a continued government financing of space operations at a tempo that we have today.

      SpaceX and some others (even OSC) are a bet that prices can come down with innovation of management not so much technology.

      At least on SpaceX part they have to get a at least a lunch a month to make all the grand schemes that they have doable and this includes reusability. they are doing what they always do which is work up to it slowly nibbling at the process and so far they seem to have the money base to do it.

      I dont think that ULA has any intention of moving past the spot where it is. RGO

      • Arnie T

        Robert, I don’t want to sound to critical, but those ‘hiccups’ have been better than pulling a Proton; point, shoot, explode; N’est-ce pas?
        Otherwise agree.

      • Robert G. Oler wrote:

        … the only thing/variable I would add to this is thaat along with reusability SpaceX has got to figure out how to “point and shoot” meaning launch on a regular basis with none of these “hiccups” that postpone launches.

        To be fair, some of the problems have been beyond SpaceX’s control, e.g. the range fire and now the Orbcomm customer requesting a delay.

        My guess is CRS-4 will be delayed from August because Orbital ORB-2 has pushed back to July due to the Antares engine test failure.

        I think everyone involved understands why SpaceX isn’t launching once a month. But the purpose of SpaceX is to try to launch once a month, to bring down the cost, to make spaceflight more routine. In my opinion, we need to cut them some slack, so long as they don’t make a rash and irresponsible decision that leads to the loss of life or payload.

        • Robert G Oler

          Stephen and Arnie. I am not being critical or am not oblivious as to the situation that SpaceX is under…just pointing out that they need to get to a more “point and shoot” capability if reusability is to work. I think that like on everything else they are making solid progress…and they do “plod” along which is how you do it…but just making the point. Their launch rate right now of course is higher then the shuttle and mnore then “SLS” will ever be.

          Had a good time here at Singapore the last few days. Got a tour of the new Indian CV. very very nice. up and coming power. RGO

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      I’d just add the observation that the best thing that could happen to ULA might be losing the block buy.

      Why? Because ULA, despite its current problems, is one of only three current concentrations of proven launcher development talent in the US (along with SpaceX and Orbital.) Absent the block buy, they’ll no longer be a solid multi-year cash cow for Boeing & LockMart, and they might conceivably be sold to someone with deep pockets and some ambition to actually compete in the business rather than milk their current previous-gen high-cost assets until there’s nothing left.

      • Robert G. Oler

        Henry I would associate myself with those remarks. the argument that a certain project or so has to be continued “to keep the talent available” is muted if the talent is wasted in a project that under delivers under performs and is overpriced. Either the talent is bad or the management directive is poor. In my view the problems at ULA are the latter.

        The block buy, particularly of GPS satellites is just a bit of pork gone rogue. there is a story that spaceX offered a GPS launch for 80 million. and the folks declined. That should tell you where the problem is RGO

    • Dick Eagleson

      Fred, Henry, RGO,

      Count one more endorsement for pretty much everything you had to say here.

    • MrEarl

      Another reason that reusability is so important to SpaceX is the shear number of Merlin engines needed to sustain a flight rate of one launch per month. That’s 120 engines a year for the Falcon 9 and close to 200 if a few Falcon heavys are thrown into the mix.
      If reusability proves to be less than what SpaceX had hoped then the Raptor engine becomes even more important requiring only 2 engines per core rather than 9.

      • Dick Eagleson

        The high required production rate for the Merlin 1-D is not a bug, it’s a feature. The more of any manufactured article gets produced, the better the quality tends to be. One of the biggest problems space-related aerospace has always had is that they have obdurately stuck to artisanal methods of production involving copious touch labor and nothing resembling a modern assembly line. Given the tendency to not produce very many of any particular thing, one can see how this dysfunctional pattern took hold, but it’s not a good thing.

        You can see the baleful results in the failure histories of various launch vehicles. The Ariane 5 has one core-stage engine. That vehicle had four failed missions out of its first 14 before settling down and building its current enviable track record. The Falcon 9 profited hugely by using an evolved version of the engine SpaceX started trying to fly Falcon 1’s with back in the day. When SpaceX moved on to Falcon 9, they deliberately set up Merlin 1-C/D production as a mass-production industrial process. The results speak for themselves. Merlin engine production is not the limiting factor in SpaceX’s fabrication of Falcon 9’s.

        Only one Merlin engine has ever failed on a Falcon 9 mission, a 1-C model on the 1.0 version of the vehicle. On the five Falcon 9 v1.0 missions, Spacex flew 50 Merlin 1-C’s. On the four v1.1 missions to-date, they’ve flown 40 Merlin 1-D’s. Combined, that’s appreciably more engines flown than Arianespace has flown Vulcains on Ariane 5’s.

        ULA’s Atlas V, incidentally, benefits from the same effect. By the time ULA started buying RD-180’s for their rocket, the Russians had already worked all the bugs out of their production process. Thus, the Atlas V was spared the usual few early-in-program failures that tend to crop up when new vehicles with new engines are introduced. The RD-180 was not a new engine by the time it first flew on Atlas V.

        Finally, the reason the one Merlin 1-C failure that did occur didn’t scupper the mission was precisely because there are nine engines on the Falcon 9 1st stage. Fault-tolerance through use of multiple components that mutually back one another up is old hat in computer engineering, but aerospace types seem to prefer obsessing over minimizing total part count. Not always a good idea.

        Multiple engines also make it possible to do reusability more easily by running only as many engines as needed at any given stage of flight. This way, individual engines don’t have to be able to be throttled to absurdly low power levels. It’s tough to make a single million lbf engine throttle down below 10%. If, you’ve got nine engines, you can get pretty much the same effect by just shutting eight of them off and throttling the remaining one much less radically.

        Raptor, therefore, is not very likely to appear solo, or even in mere tandem, on any SpaceX vehicle except, like the vacuum version of Merlin 1-D, on an upper stage. I suspect most Raptors, like most Merlin 1-D’s, will be clustered – quite likely in groups of nine once again – on a stage 8 to 10 meters in diameter that will have total thrust roughly 20% in excess of that of Saturn V’s 1st stage. In combination with a suitable upper stage, such a vehicle could put 150 metric tons or more into LEO. A triplexed “heavy” vehicle using three such cores might put 500 tonnes at a time into LEO. Just as with Falcon 9, engine redundancy would insure against loss of mission for all but very unlikely structural failure, explosive and/or multi-engine failures (3 or more of the 9).

        • The high required production rate for the Merlin 1-D is not a bug, it’s a feature.

          The F9 engine cluster results in complex mounting structure and thrust vectoring, low thrust to weight ratio, high base heating, limited growth potential…

          reusability more easily by running only as many engines as needed at any given stage of flight.

          And pay the payload tax when they are not running. I never liked this approach. It seems sub-optimal.

          • Dick Eagleson

            The F9 engine cluster results in complex mounting structure

            Complex how? It has a structure connecting the center engine to the tankage, just like any single-engine booster, and a ring of eight additional engine mount points much like the center one and feeding thrust loads into the tankage in a similar way through a common triangulated thrust structure. It can’t be all that complex or the Falcon 9 would not cost so little compared to other launch vehicles.

            and thrust vectoring,

            SpaceX seems to use hydraulic pistons in what looks to me in pictures I’ve seen to be a Stewart Platform configuration to orient the axes of its engines. That seems to be how other boosters steer too.

            low thrust to weight ratio,

            As the Merlin 1-D has the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any sizable rocket engine ever built, I assume this baseless canard is simply a matter of your obdurate refusal to believe anything SpaceX says.

            high base heating,

            I have no idea how you imagine you know this.

            limited growth potential

            Current Merlin 1-D’s produce almost twice the thrust of the original Merlins and may have additional “stretch” left in them. The Falcon 9v1.1 has more than 25% greater payload capacity than the v1.0 bird, even after allowing for reusability margins.

            And pay the payload tax when they are not running.

            They all run when launching a payload. After stage separation, though, only three run to stabilize the booster and fly it back toward its point of departure. Only one engine fires to soft-land it. There’s no “payload tax” associated with running variable numbers of engines on the return to launch site leg of a mission. The payload and the booster parted company already.

            I never liked this approach.

            You’ve never had a good word to say about anything SpaceX does. So what else is new.

            It seems sub-optimal.

            It’s quite optimal – for what SpaceX is trying to optimize – namely long-term cost of operation. You, no doubt, have something entirely different in mind, like. say, payload mass. And you’re probably supposing that maximizing it is equivalent to optimizing it.

        • MrEarl

          For rocket engines, like anything else, there is a point of diminishing returns.
          The “engine out” capability you talk about can be done with 3 and is optimized at 5.
          While the manufacturing process gets better with repetition, knowing human nature where is the point fatigue and carelessness enters the picture? What is the attention to detail when your production is being pushed hard to meet obligations. I can’t say for sure but I would think 120 to 200 per year is getting close to if not above the mark where serious mistakes are made.

          • Dick Eagleson

            There is no single canonical optimization point for engine clustering. The Falcon 9 1st stage has push-to-orbit fault-tolerance for up to two of nine engines failing. I don’t think 3- or 5-engine configurations can handle two failures.

            Then there’s the matter of SpaceX’s planned flyback reusability. This requires highly variable thrust to be available in the flyback parts of the booster stage’s flight regime. Nine engines allows more fine-grained control than would three or five. SpaceX is optimizing more than one thing at once with the Falcon 9’s design.

            As to your completely unexplained basis for believing SpaceX to be on the ragged edge of disaster in producing so many Merlins, it’s worth pointing out that the Merlin’s parts are produced on CNC machine tools. Many users of such machines like to run them constantly at or near their limits in the belief this somehow maximizes production. What it mainly does is burn up tooling and machines. I have no knowledge of SpaceX’s machining philosophy, but I suspect they’re smart enough to have figured out one can get much more consistent quality out of machines and tooling that are not run at the limits of their performance envelopes.

            I also don’t know to what extent the assembly of Merlin engines is a robot-centric as opposed to human-centric process. But the assembly process at Tesla is highly robotic and a rocket engine is both smaller and has a lot fewer parts than a car. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to learn that Merlins roll off the line virtually untouched by human hands.

            If your concerns about SpaceX’s engine production are based on familiarity with how part fabrication and assembly are done in traditional aerospace, it would be good to remember that SpaceX is not traditional aerospace.

  • amightywind

    While the Air Force dithers, the threat of a Russian embargo on engines grows. Hard to understand these people.

    • Dick Eagleson

      On the contrary, it’s easy to understand these people. They think they’re all going to wake up some morning in the not too distant future and that big white building on Crenshaw in Hawthorne is still going to have a Northrop-Grumman logo on it, Putin will be our good buddy again and Bobby Ewing will be stepping out of the shower.

  • Arnie T

    Nice ending Dick.

    Time to say, Goodnight Gracie.
    Goodnight George.

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