Congress, Pentagon, White House

Administration opposes funding RD-180 replacement in defense bill

As the House of Representatives prepares to debate the fiscal year 2015 defense appropriations bill this week, the White House has come out in opposition to one of the bill’s space-related provisions: $220 million to start development of a large rocket engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180.

“The Administration objects to the unrequested $220 million for a new rocket engine,” the Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) about the defense appropriations bill, released late yesterday, states. “This approach prematurely commits significant resources and would not reduce our reliance on Russian engines for at least a decade.” The SAP also cites an unnamed “independent study” that claims development of such an engine would take eight years and cost $1.5 billion, plus “another $3 billion needed to develop a suitable launch vehicle.” (The SAP doesn’t identify this study by name; the summary of the “Mitchell Report” about the RD-180 that leaked last month doesn’t include those specific cost estimates, although it does state a new liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine should be ready by fiscal year 2022, or eight years from now.)

The SAP indicates that the Obama Administration is looking at other options to develop a new large domestic rocket engine. “With a goal of promptly reducing our reliance on Russian technology, the Administration is evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition,” it states.

At an event hosted by The Atlantic Council in Washington last week, William A. LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said no decision had been made on whether to develop a large hydrocarbon engine. He added that the Air Force was open to alternative approaches, including the use of public-private partnerships, to develop one if they decided to go forward with that effort.

30 comments to Administration opposes funding RD-180 replacement in defense bill

  • The administration is opposed to any attempt to claw back national strength they’ve squandered over these last 6 baleful years. I’ll remind them that congress has the power of the purse.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      I’ll remind them that congress has the power of the purse.

      Yes, and sometimes they act like drunk sailors with it… ;-)

      ULA is already working on a new engine for THEIR rocket, the U.S. Government doesn’t need to interfere.

      • Well said CR. ULA may have finally recognized that the only thing worse than having Russia controlling your engine supply is potentially an American competitor having control of the supply.
        As I recall, news of ULA engine development came out after the recent Atlantic Conference with Shotwell saying SpaceX might be interested in doing the HC/RD-180 engine replacement development.
        I’m sure that sent puckers up the ULA chain of command.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “The administration is opposed to any attempt to claw back national strength they’ve squandered over these last 6 baleful years.”

      How asinine. RD-180s were powering Atlases in 2000. That’s 8 years before the Obama Administration took office.

      “I’ll remind them that congress has the power of the purse.”

      My, what a mastery of constitutional law you possess!

    • Vladislaw

      When President Obama presented his NASA budget in 2010 that called for fully funding a replacement engine for the 180 and the republicans refused to fund it .. was that the republicans trying to claw back national strength by continued use of russian engines?

  • James

    “With a goal of promptly reducing our reliance on Russian technology, the Administration is evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition,”

    Sounds like Space Act agreements might be in the offing?

    • Dark Blue Nine

      The DOD version of Space Act Authority or Agreements (SAAs) is Other Transaction Authority (OTA). And I’m not certain that the services (like USAF) have that authority. It may be limited to DARPA (which I’m certain has it) and some other, smaller Pentagon actors.

      The EELVs were developed under FAR provisions governing commercial items (and included massive cost-sharing by LockMart and Boeing), but then switched to traditional FAR for launch services. Even if USAF lacks OTA, they could go the commercial FAR route again for RD-180 replacement engine(s).

    • Neil

      Interesting goal ‘… promptly …’. Guess my interpretation of this word is somewhat different to authors of the SAP Report.
      Cheers

    • Ben Russell-Gough

      I’ve got the feeling that statement from the Administration translates to: “We’re going to keep kicking this can down the road so we don’t have to make a decision; we’re not really very good at those!”

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    SAA’s and public-private partnerships have been working well for space launch so far this decade.

    That does require the right commercial partners, though. The problem here is getting around the fact that all the traditional rocket engine developers have been folded into Aerojet-Rocketdyne.

    SpaceX demonstrably has a competent propulsion department for engines within an order of magnitude of the size needed, Blue Origin also, but does either want to be distracted from supporting their own vehicle developments?

    And who out there might plausibly field a new entrant development team? GE?

    The tricky part about getting the engine DOD actually needs here may be getting Aerojet-Rocketdyne to put in a serious effort on the public-private partnership model. It’s not their preferred mode of business; they’re an old-line cost-plus house all the way.

    Introducing a competitive commercial mindset into Aerojet-Rocketdyne’s propulsion talent pool would be very good for the country, but it’s a distinctly non-trivial objective.

    • reader

      Agreed.
      One of the time honored ways of injecting competitiveness into a group of people who are otherwise opposed to it is letting them fail and crash spectacularly and scatter, and then let someone pick up the pieces and rebuild.
      What is AJRs primary revenue source anyway ?

      It would be really awesome if this would come to a serious sink or swim situation.

      Also, i’m really keen on seeing if this actually creates an opportunity for the smaller propulsion houses to grow into the shoes : Blue Origin, XCOR have built sizable engines, but they are still far short of being able to field turbopumped booster engines.

      • Henry Vanderbilt

        AJR’s primary revenue stream is government rocket launches, of course. They build Delta 4′s main engine, they import and resell A5′s main engine, they build the RL-10′s for the upper stages for both of these, they import recondition and resell Antares’ main engines, and they’ll be refurbishing SSME’s for SLS if-and-when, and RL-10′s or J-2x’s for that upper stage too.

        So waiting for creative destruction to redistribute their talent may take a while. They have considerable cashflow.

        I believe Blue Origin’s 100Klbf hydrogen engine is an expander and uses a turbopump; I’d be reasonably confident they could handle the leap if they took on a 500Klbf pump-fed hydrocarbon engine (my guess at the current new-engine sweet spot.)

        XCOR to my knowledge has never built an engine bigger than 7.5Klbf (nominal vacuum) and the piston pumps they have experience with don’t scale up well for really big engines. A 500Klbf-class turbopump engine might be a bit too large a single step for them.

        I’d be really interested in seeing who ULA is letting those study contracts with…

        • reader

          Well, i was more wondering whats AJRs bread and butter. With the D-IV low launch rates, RD-AMROSS handling the russian imports it sort of leaves RL-10s.

          Also im wondering about their workforce split between R&D people and manufacturing and techs. What exactly are all the R&D people doing after J-2X wound down ?

        • Garret McPhee

          they’ll be refurbishing SSME’s for SLS if-and-when

          I think they will find it a bit difficult to refurbish those SSMEs when they are burnt to a crisp and sitting on the bottom of the ocean in pieces, Henry.

          • Henry Vanderbilt

            I used “refurbishing” to refer to the overhaul and modifications that’ll be needed before using them for SLS, of course. Or did you think NASA would simply be able to dust them off out of storage, bolt them on, and go?

            • Garrett McPhee

              No, obviously they need a new engine controller (lol) but I would expect that they would be unbolted and refurbished after each use as well. What I find more disturbing than that (if there is such a thing) is that you are not screaming bloody murder that isn’t the NASA and US plan. I have a very low opinion of space advocates nowadays. A well earned very low opinion.

              • Henry Vanderbilt

                So, you’re advising me to apply my limited time and resources to pressuring old-guard NASA to go for reusability in the SLS first stage? (Or at least engine recovery?)

                I personally think my time would be better spent trying to teach a brontosaur to roller-skate.

                Your mileage may vary, of course.

              • Henry Vanderbilt

                To extend (and perhaps clarify) the analogy, the proper thing for space advocates to do with bureaucratic dinosaurs like the SLS organization is not to waste time try to teach them new behaviors they haven’t a chance of ever usefully learning.

                It’s to put the minimum necessary energy into preventing them from trampling anything useful, while focusing as much as possible on encouraging those useful things.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      “And who out there might plausibly field a new entrant development team?”

      A couple traditional players with potential promise:

      Northrup Grumman Propulsion Systems. They inherited and extended TRW’s work on the TR-106 low-cost pintle engine (Tom Mueller’s LOX/LH2 engine) into the TR-107. The TR-107 is an ORSC LOX/RP-1 engine in the 1Mlbf+ category. Presumably, it’s scalable down to RD-180 size. They’ve also developed and tested LOX/ethanol and LOX/methane engines in the 100-1000lbf category.

      ATK GASL. Their traditional focus is airbreathing, but they possess broad expertise in hypersonic propulsion. If OSC now owns them, they’re probably being tapped to examine/develop alternatives to the AJ-26. If I was OSC (or ATK), I’d throw them at this, too.

      • reader

        TR-107 never existed – in more than viewgraphs and subsystem prototypes.
        OSC does not “own” ATK, you got this backwards.

        • Dick Eagleson

          OSC does not “own” ATK, you got this backwards.

          No, he didn’t. The folding of ATK’s former space and defense division into Orbital was done, nominally, as a merger of equals, but the senior management of the former ATK stayed with the sporting arms and ammunition operation. Part of ATK’s second echelon were slotted in at Orbital. Orbital’s pre-existing senior management is still in place. So, yeah, as a practical matter, Orbital pretty much owns ATK.

        • Dark Blue Nine

          “TR-107 never existed – in more than viewgraphs and subsystem prototypes.”

          I never claimed such. I only claimed that NG “extended” TR-106 work into TR-107, a 1Mlbf LOX/RP-1 engine design that should be scalable down to RD-180 size.

          “OSC does not ‘own’ ATK, you got this backwards.”

          See other reply directly above.

  • josh

    Good. No more corporate welfare for you, windy:D
    Have a free and open competition to develop the engine and do it via space act agreements. No more handouts for old space.

  • reader

    Someone, somewhere in this administration has their head screwed on right in regards of kicking some life into the moribund domestic aerospace industry.

    More power to them.

  • Fred Willett

    I rather like ULA’s approach of holding off on committing to a new engine just yet and doing a few studies.
    We are in the middle of a period of very rapid change. In a few days we will see if SpaceX can recover a stage and by this timer next year SpaceX could be in a position to relaunch a recovered stage. That’s certainly their plan.
    Committing to an 8 year build of a brand new engine might be committing to exactly the wrong thing. It might be better to wait for a year before committing.
    Meanwhile study your options and get the boys and girls in the design department busy just in case.

  • Neil

    I expect SpaceX to have their FH on-line in the next couple of years. Together with their existing F9, they will be able to handle all current and forseeable future payloads. Both these vehicles use their home-grown M1D and M1DVac engines.

    SpaceX is also developing Raptor which is touted for their MCT. But that said, how long will it take and where it will be used is open to some considerable speculation so it’s probably wise to sideline it as a consideration at this point.

    However, any engine developments by other organisations are going to take between 5 and 8 years from what I’ve heard which is well outside the timeframe for FH.

    Methinks ULA’s wait and see approach is the best one. I predict that the current mix of Atlas and Delta is phased out and replaced with a mix of F9, FH, and DIV.

    Cheers.

  • There is an interesting story at spaceflightnow on this topic:

    http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1406/18ula/#.U6LdFfldW4I

    Obama should have talked to the military first.

  • Reader: Someone, somewhere in this administration has their head screwed on right in regards of kicking some life into the moribund domestic aerospace industry.

    This relatively conservative Democrat has long believed that the Obama Administration is doing exactly the right thing (jumping onto the “New Space” bandwagon) for exactly the wrong reasons (to avoid having to spend any more money, political capital, or even thought than he has to on spaceflight without hurting his party’s chances in future elections). If so, more power to him indeed.

    If nothing else, it’s given us six years of wonderful theater as a relatively liberal Democrat fights for free market capitalism against the entrenched opposition of (wait for it) supposedly free market Republicans fighting tooth and nail for nothing less than Socialism. I don’t really care _why_ we ended up developing three human spacecraft, at least two of which are far superior to anything else on the table, only that we are. I only wish the Administration had won this battle. But, as somebody else implied above, winning political battles does not seem to be this President’s skill.

    – Donald

  • I should have said, I wish the administration had won this battle in full, instead of the half victory they achieved.

  • Bloomberg has noticed and gave Shelby’s views a little fresh air into the business community:

    http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-06-23/spacex-versus-senator-shelby-s-rocket-to-nowehere

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