Although legislation making its way through both the House and Senate would support the development of a large hydrocarbon rocket engine that could, in principle, replace the Russian-built RD-180 used on the Atlas V, United Launch Alliance (ULA) appears to be moving to take matters into its own hands. The company announced late Monday that it’s signed “commercial contracts with multiple American companies to investigate next-generation liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon first stage propulsion concepts.” That work will cover feasibility studies as well as analysis of cost, schedule, and technical risks for designs that would be ready by 2019.
The company did not disclose how many contracts it’s awarded beyond “multiple,” nor who the companies are. There are, though, only a handful of companies in the US that have the expertise to develop such a large engine. It would be surprising if ULA’s contracts did not include Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has recently stepped up marketing of its proposed AR1 LOX/kerosene engine to ULA, Orbital Sciences, and even SpaceX. (On the other hand, despite SpaceX’s work on the Merlin series of LOX/kerosene engines and plans for even larger LOX/methane engines, the current animus between the two companies makes it an unlikely awardee.)
In the meantime, ULA said in the release it will continue to work with RD AMROSS, the US-Russian joint venture that provides ULA with the RD-180, to evaluate continued long-term use of the RD-180 in lieu of a new engine. Those discussions, ULA said in the release, include “evaluating product improvements, U.S. production and other enhancements to enable its future viability.”
ULA, in its release, said it plans to select “its future concept and engine supplier” by the fourth quarter of this year. As for how that new engine—if any—would be paid for, the release referred to “both private investment and the potential for government–industry investment” options. That could clash with proposals currently in Congress, such as in the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which calls for “full and
open competition” for the development of a government-funded next-generation liquid rocket engine that would be “available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”
Meanwhile, in an op-ed in The Hill today, Peter Marquez, former director of space policy at the National Security Council, argues for a “pragmatic” approach to the future of the RD-180 engine and development of a domestic replacement. “[I]t may be more beneficial for the U.S. to evolve its own capabilities to increase independence and use such capabilities to alter the U.S.-Russia relationship to identify and increase the opportunities for true mutual benefit,” he writes, referring to use of the RD-180 as well as US-Russian cooperation on the International Space Station. “The best way ahead is a pragmatic path where the United States can utilize the RD-180 in the near term, while developing our own propulsion capabilities.”