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.