Congress, Pentagon

Air Force starts search for an RD-180 replacement

Although the supply of Russian-built RD-180 engines that power the first stage of the Atlas V do not appear to be in the same level of jeopardy as feared earlier this year—United Launch Alliance took delivery of two of those engines last week—the US Air Force is starting to lay the groundwork for development of a domestic replacement engine.

Last week, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issued a request for information (RFI) regarding development of a new booster engine. “The Air Force has relied upon foreign sources for booster propulsion systems in the past,” the RFI states, making no overt link to the latest tensions about RD-180 access. “However, consistent with the 2013 National Space Transportation Policy, we are pursuing alternative domestic capability.”

The RFI actually goes beyond the engine itself to interest in alternative launch systems in general: “The Air Force is open to a range of possible options including but not limited to: a replacement engine with similar performance characteristics to currently used engines, alternative configurations that would provide similar performance (such as a multiple engine configuration) to existing EELV-class systems, and use of alternative launch vehicles for EELV-class systems.”

The RFI features two sets of questions, one for those interested in providing new engines and one for new launch systems. The first set of questions asks how companies would replace the RD-180, including whether such an engine could be developed for multiple users. The second set of questions asks how companies would replace the capability offered by the Atlas V, while also asking if they believe a multi-user engine could be developed. Both sets of questions also ask for thoughts on how the government should acquire a new engine or launch system, including their interest in a “shared investment” approach with the government to fund development.

Responses to the RFI are due to the Air Force on September 19, with a two-day “industry day” planned at SMC on September 25-26. The next steps may depend on what direction, and funding, Congress provides the Air Force: House and Senate authorization and appropriations bills have provided differing levels of support for development of an RD-180 replacement.

54 comments to Air Force starts search for an RD-180 replacement

  • This is a total waste of money. The privately developed Falcon-9 Heavy (which already has private commercial customers) potentially can handle any launches the military and intelligence agencies are likely to need. Paying to speed development and for any modifications required would be a lot cheaper than developing a new heavy engine that would not provide an engine-out capability to its vehicles. If you want reliability and flexibility, small is beutiful.

    I have not forgotten the Sovient experience with the N1. However, since the Delta-IV Heavy is available, and it looks like Atlas-V will be for a bit longer, it seems worth taking a risk.

    If this engine is developed, I expect an outcome very like the J2X.

    — Donald

    — Donald

    • common sense

      I think this looks like a waste of money but not because of the availability of F9, not just that.

      The Air Force is totally confused it seems to me.

      Did the “Air Force” rely on foreign engines? Or did ULA rely on foreign engines?

      Why is it that the AF need a “new” RD-180 replacement engine?

      It is unfortunate but it seems to me that someone at the AF is confusing the Air Force with ULA for some reason.

      Now of course if the Air Force actually needs a new LV then F9 comes to mind.

      So what is this all about? A hand out to ULA to replace their RD-180?


      Seems to me more lawsuit will soon come.

    • Jeff

      Unfortunately the Falcon has yet to prove it can ever meet a launch schedule. (Isn’t it running at something like 20% schedule performance). How do you put the lives of people at stake with such a low performance record?

    • Matt

      The Falcon 9 Heavy is still a paper rocket. Falcon needs to mature as a system, too many anomalies to risk national security payloads on at this time.

      • Coastal Ron

        Matt said:

        The Falcon 9 Heavy is still a paper rocket.

        You keep chanting that to yourself if it makes you sleep better… ;-)

        In reality the Falcon Heavy shares about 99% heritage with the current Falcon 9. If the Air Force decides to fund a replacement engine for the RD-180, whatever launcher it is attached to would in essence be “a paper rocket” until it too flies. Yet the Air Force funds paper rockets all the time.

        Apparently the Air Force doesn’t have the same aversions that you do.

        Falcon needs to mature as a system…

        Again, using that logic the Air Force is going to have ZERO confidence in any new RD-180 replacement engine, and ZERO confidence in any new launcher that it’s attached to.

        But the Air Force doesn’t use your system of validation. So far SpaceX has six perfect launches of the current Falcon 9 v1.1 in less than one year – it took Atlas V 3 years to get six perfect launches.

        I’d say the Falcon 9 has matured at a much faster rate than Atlas V (Delta IV too).

        …too many anomalies to risk national security payloads on at this time.

        What “anomalies” are you talking about? Every Falcon 9 v1.1 flight has been a 100% success.

  • Garp Newton

    RFI’s don’t involve money, so this is a pretty darn good investment. My RFI paper and new rocket design should be finished by tonight, already this has been a great ride.

    How is your paper coming? The solution to this problem should be obvious to anyone. Nine BE-3s on a redesigned Boeing Delta IV core as a hydrogen Falcon 9 clone, with the possibility of up to four Aerojet SRMs to double the liftoff thrust. Heavy USAF investment in something like this is only fair considering the NASA help SpaceX got.

    There are some problems with this which I am in the middle of discussing extensively, but Blue Origin claims they wanted to fly by 2018 and this would be the way to do it. Boeing is an airframe manufacturer and integrator that does not build engines and does not operate the aircraft they build. Rockets are simple aerodynamic cylinders.

    What could possibly go wrong? lol. Lockheed and Orbital can go their own ways.

    • And, how about the engine currently used on the Delta-IV? The point is, there is no shortage of high-powered rocket engines even if you eliminate foreign engines and ganging smaller engines.

      An RFI is fine as long as it stays an RFI. Like the SLS itself, an RD-180 replacement duplicates capabilities we already have in “good enough” form.

      — Donald

    • common sense

      RFI don’t involve money??? Really??? What an interesting concept.

      Still working on your SLS/F9 concept? Looks you have an even better idea now!

      Best of luck to you, let us know how it goes this time.

      Oh well.

      • Garp Newton

        how about the engine currently used on the Delta-IV?

        It’s not reusable and the Delta IV is vastly too expensive, the Titan IV of EELVs.

        RFI don’t involve money?

        I guess they require a laptop, an email account and and internet connection. If the primes need a full month to think about this then they aren’t prepared. I agree with Donald on one thing, a Mlb engine is not required for the Defense Dept. They already have one, it’s called the RS-68. And they have a Atlas V replacement, it’s called the Falcon 9R. This RFI is about preventing another debacle, not creating one. If Boeing doesn’t want to be an airframe subcontractor, that’s their business, but I’m pretty sure their days of being a launch vehicle prime contractor are definitely over. The SLS proves that at the very least.

        My money is on Blue Origin. USAF money for this would be about speeding that up and creating at least an appearance of industry competition where right now there is none.

        My money is on Blue Origin, they have an engine at least in prototype form.

    • Neil

      Love the concept. Tell me, have you worked up an estimated cost for your new lv?

      • Garp Newton

        Mr. Bezos has an estimated $500 million invested in this already, roughly half for the engine and half for the infrastructure, so that doesn’t come out of anyone’s pocket but his. He is going to build this anyways, this would just speed that up. Certainly it will cost less than the cost of an RD-180 clone, which some in congress are proposing to spend. This RFI indicates to me that the Air Force isn’t buying that at all. In other words, for the cost of an obsolete engine clone, they can get an RLV industry operating and airline industry efficiency. Is that clear enough? I already wrote it up.

  • Hiram

    I think what the Air Force needs is some assurance of capability. SpaceX looks to be able to provide that now, but national security needs shouldn’t be shouldered by a single private firm. SpaceX can do anything they want with their engines, and it might not be something that is consistent with Air Force needs.

    So it makes some sense for the Air Force to be looking at options that will create a real market in affordable launch technology. Not sure if the DeltaIV/RS-68 serves that need. Of course, this RFI isn’t just about an engine, but a “launch system”. So we’re talking about wholesale replacement of Atlas.

    • Garp Newton

      Despite Donald’s assertion that there are tons of high performance engines in the US, I can think of only one imaginary US engine that might serve as an RD-180 replacement – a detuned Dynetics F-1X. Even if someone was to create a methane version of the Merlin 1D, the resulting vehicle would look nothing like the Atlas V. RFIs are all about ideas.

      • Fred Willett

        Raptor is well into development.

        • Garp Newton

          The Raptor uses a different lower density hydrocarbon fuel than the Atlas V and SpaceX is a competitor. Legacy companies are certainly free to compete with SpaceX in the BFR realm but clearly the USAF is not looking for a space colonization rocket, they are looking for a low cost EELV replacement NOT SpaceX Falcon 9, that uses US only components and providers. This appears to be the USAF equivalent of NASA COTS. People should be overjoyed, and not so pessimistic. It would be great if someone else would take on the Merlin 1D methane and Falcon 9 equivalent challenge, but Blue Origin has already committed to hydrogen fuels. Hopefully a small methane engine and a methane Falcon 9 clone will come out of this, but I am only pointing out that a hydrogen Falcon 9 clone would be a lot cheaper and quicker to produce and would also lure the legacy companies into competition. Whether or not that would be Blue Origin or not remains to be seen, but hydrogen does have some advantages. Hydrogen is not all bad. I have already published and submitted a very short four page RFI essay on this subject, FYI.

          • Dick Eagleson

            Now here’s a guy who’s actually read the bloody RFI!

          • Fred Willett

            As I understand it Raptor is to be about 667kN and 470s isp compared with a RD-180’s 1,270kN and 275s isp. So clearly 2 raptors could provide equivalent performance to a single RD-180. And as the RD–180 is a two thrust chamber engine there should be little problem adapting raptors to the Atlas thrust structure.
            Yes, Raptor is to be methane. Yes, it comes from SpaceX who is clearly Satan’s child. But if hydrogen is to be considered then methane needs to be considered too. Raptor is not only compatable, but delivers to Atlas a modest performance upgrade because of it’s higher isp.
            And do you really think a business (which SpaceX is) would not want to provide a product (Raptor) to a customer (ULA)

            • Garp Newton

              The last I heard the Raptor is really going to be a BFE, so powerful that they could probably sell the gas generator for other to use as a small engine.

              And do you really think a business (which SpaceX is) would not want to provide a product (Raptor) to a customer (ULA)

              Not a chance. They already have their hands full already. What the Air Force wants is more American players. Putting two of them on an Atlas V tank would not work anyways. The density and thermal properties of methane are radically different than RP-1.

              What the Air Force wants here is a methane powered Falcon 9 clone, and so a better bet would be for somebody to come up with a 150 klb Merlin 1D clone implemented in methane. Clearly SpaceX could do that, but somebody else could do it too. Heck, I might even try it. But I’d rather get moving with an engine by a competitor that might be more amenable to subbing out the airframe, possibly not even to Boeing. I might even try that as well. Or simply selling the engines to a competitive airframe market like GE or Rolls Royce does. And once this gets rolling we’ll need operators as well.

    • common sense

      I believe what you are saying is correct.

      However what bothers me here is the focus on the RD-180. RD-180 is not a USAF product as far as I know. It is part of a launch vehicle procured by the USAF.

      So in effect if the USAF wants to investigate replacement of Atlas, rather than RD-180, then they should be clear.

      Since in essence what they seem to offer as a possibility is an engine replacement for Atlas therefore the question arises why the tax-payers would pay for an engine to replace the RD-180 that will then be sold to the tax-payers as part of an Atlas LV.


      • Hiram

        Let’s be careful about the words “engine replacement for an Atlas”. I have to assume that an Atlas with a new engine is a whole new launcher, which needs the whole kaboodle of recerts, and carries with it no performance legacy. The idea that you can “upgrade” an Atlas by sliding out an RD-180 and sliding in a new engine is nonsense.

        • common sense

          I totally agree. I still think this RFI is poorly written. You just added one very good reason.

          • Dick Eagleson

            I’m not normally a defender of government bureaucrats but in this case I think they did, by their usual standards, a fairly good job of composition. I think the fact of mandatory re-certification of any existing vehicle incorporating a major change, such as an engine replacement, is simply assumed. Any completely new vehicle would also have to pass certification muster. No one to whom this document is directed is going to assume otherwise.

            Read the thing. If it’s not clear from the summary at the link that this RFI is about a lot more than RD-180 replacement, try following the links to the MS Word files contained within it.

      • Dick Eagleson

        The RFI isn’t particularly about the RD-180. Jeff might have improved clarity at the cost of clunkiness by entitling this post “Air Force starts search for an RD-180 and/or Atlas V replacement” (addition and emphasis mine). They’re looking for ideas that might range from plug-compatible RD-180 clones at the most status quo-zy end of the spectrum of possible changes all the way up to a completely different vehicle architecture anent engine sizes, number, propellants, etc., at the far end of said spectrum. It’s not a narrow RFI.

      • Jeff

        Did you also object to NASA’s funding of the development of the F9?

        • NASA did not fund development of the F9 (and never would have). NASA (after DARPA) subsidized development of the F9 through launch contracts, and later COTS. Big difference.

          I would be all for the Air Force subsidizing commercial development of a new engine via a COTS-like program, even though I don’t think that is necessary.

          — Donald

        • Fred Willett

          NASA did not fund development of the F9.
          They funded development of the Dragon, and the necessary software and hardware development for Dragon to reach ISS.
          F9 (and F1 before that) was developed with internal SpaceX funds.
          It should be noted that a lot of the money SpaceX got from NASA’s CRS contract went into F9 development, but what SpaceX does with their income is their business.
          It’s sorta like complaining that Apple used profits from Mac to fund ipod, ipad and so on.

    • rocket mom

      They also provided a blow up too. Lets not forget that video.

  • Vladislaw

    I have read a few RFI’s before but for only 3 short paragraphs, one issue sure seemed to stand out:

    “an acquisition strategy to stimulate the commercial development”

    “that could deliver cost-effective, commercially-viable solutions”

    “how to best ensure that future launch requirements are fulfilled by reliable, commercially-viable sources.”

    “determine the best way to ensure that future launch requirements can be met by reliable, commercially-viable sources of production”

    “the Government is interested in launch/propulsion strategies that are designed for affordability throughout the lifecycle and that potentially could result in greater U.S. competitiveness in the commercial space arena.”

    They apparently are not looking for a government only monopoly launch vehicles that only service the government.

    As Russia, I believe, leads in commercial launches, it looks like this is a request to bring back the launch industry to the U.S.

  • Vladislaw: They apparently are not looking for a government only monopoly launch vehicles that only service the government.

    Caveat Emptor. Didn’t we go through just that process a couple of decades ago with the EELV competition? A commercial company might know how to develop a rocket useful for commerce: Boeing and LocMart demonstrably do not.

    — Donald

    • common sense

      I think they are shooting themselves in the foot with that RFI yet again.

      Who are the rocket providers being considered here? Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ULA, SpaceX? Others? Of those who would need an RD-180 engine? Or do they suggest that for example SpaceX might build a replacement engine for RD-180 they might then sell to ULA for example?

      This is a bad RFI.

    • Dick Eagleson

      On the other hand, neither LockMart nor Boeing had SpaceX to contend with in the 90’s. Arranging a cozy monopoly divvy-up with a single well-known opponent isn’t remotely an option this time.

      • Jeff

        You are just clueless… in the 90’s Lockheed martin and Boeing were very fierce competitors. Check the history… the US Government helped arrange the merger of thses two competitors to reduce cost.

        • Jeff: US Government helped arrange the merger of thses two competitors to reduce cost

          And, we can all see how that turned out. We never learn our lesson either, witness the recent government sanctioned creation of the Digital Globe / GeoEye monopoly. (I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in the future, someone in the government decided it would benefit cargo transport to orbit if SpaceX and Orbital were combined, though I expect and hope that SpaceX won’t be for sale.)

          — Donald

          — Donald

        • Vladislaw

          They didn’t do a merger, they did a joint venture. Huge difference.

  • Garp Newton

    Who are the rocket providers being considered here?

    It’s an RFI. Anyone can write one. Even you. You might be better advice to take your issues up with the USAF by writing your own response. It would help if you read the RFI. There are a number of issues they are requesting input on, and you are not obligated to answer all of them. It’s truly an open solicitation. That how it works.

    You don’t even have to register, just email in what you have before the deadline.

  • Coastal Ron

    “The Air Force is open to a range of possible options including but not limited to: a replacement engine with similar performance characteristics to currently used engines, alternative configurations that would provide similar performance (such as a multiple engine configuration) to existing EELV-class systems, and use of alternative launch vehicles for EELV-class systems.”

    While it is assumed that ULA would be a potential recipient of such a contract, the options allowed would not only allow for Falcon Heavy to be considered, but also a potential methane-powered engine from SpaceX.

    The good news though is that the near-term is not an issue, since any problems with Atlas V can be backstopped by both the Falcon 9 and a little bit of effort by the Air Force to certify Falcon Heavy.

    After that the question becomes how many launchers does the Air Force need (not want, but need) to ensure redundancy and access to space? So far they have been happy with two, so if Atlas V is no longer available then relying on SpaceX to fill the gap provides no less redundancy than the Air Force has had for the past decade.

    So while exploring their options is prudent, I don’t see this as necessitating a lot of taxpayer money to solve…

    • Dick Eagleson

      Even if some government money is eventually involved, it shouldn’t be the nine- or ten-figure sums typically lavished on the legacy contractors. Whoever wrote this RFI is pretty clearly looking for some outfit that can stay in the ring with SpaceX. Legacy Palookas don’t look like best bets.

  • common sense

    I stick to my comments. RD-180 and Atlas should not even be mentioned.

    What should be mentioned are the requirements sought after for the launch vehicle/system/etc.

    And possibly require if legal, which I doubt (not sure though) that the vehicles/systems be designed and manufactured in the US.

    • Frank

      I agree.

      If they want to create competition and low cost, a Cots program for reusable launchers would help create competition. SpaceX could join the program and get money to help in their already advanced test program. They could use some money for making their upper stage reusable too. And any others companies who wants to compete with spacex should need a reusable launcher going forward if spacex succeed (which seem likely to me). That would be money well spent IMHO.

  • Andrew Swallow

    This is a chance for Boeing to produce a cheaper Delta IV.

    • Hiram

      “This is a chance for Boeing to produce a cheaper Delta IV.”

      But then it won’t be a Delta IV. The changes would have to be pretty substantial.

      Hey, here’s an idea. Why doesn’t SpaceX just rename the F9 “Atlas V+”. Then everyone can feel good about a domestically produced Atlas V! Why, the heritage of success of that name would be a gold mine. Same as if we came up with a plug-compatible engine substitute for RD-180s, and slid those into a ULA Atlas V.

  • MrEarl

    The wrong entity issued the RFI.
    The Air Force needs to change it’s purchasing requirements stipulating that for LV’s to be considered for military or recon payloads all major components and their sub-components must be manufactured in the US. To give providers proper lead times this would take effect for launches awarded starting in FY 2020.
    It’s then up to the launch providers to issue the RFI for their products that don’t meet this requirement.

  • BRC

    While we’re on the subject of trying to find a replacement for this Rooskie Rocket engine, please permit me to briefly vent on another R-R we (the US) have been playing with: Antares’ AJ-26s (aka NK-33).

    The issue there isn’t so much of the Russians threatening to withhold them… it’s that they had simply stopped making them entirely, years ago. Now Orbital has stated that they’re toying with a what-if idea, or maybe using a solid for that first stage. Now, so long as Orbital uses them only for cargo only missions (no humans for the ride) and are willing to take on the risk solids bring (like if Wallops will even let them ignite such a candle), I can chalk it off as an OSC business decision — albeit one heavily influenced by ATK.

    But OTOH, now I’m feeling rather pssst at Aerojet for not already manufacturing a totally US domestic brand of the NK-33. As it is, the “AJ-26″ is really only a refurbished and tuned-up NK with an “AJ” label slapped on it. Now I have no beef with using these magnificent warehoused wonders (waste not). But Aerojet has been tinkering, test firing, and refurbishing dozens of these beasties since the mid-90’s!! They even have got a license to manufacture them!

    Yet even after 20 full years of a head-start, nada!! It’s as if they’ve gone timid over cranking out fully made-in-U.S. versions to fly. Good Gawd, why?? That’s just pitiful! More so to me than seeing ULA & USAF trip over each other on this RD-180 issue.

    Okay, vent over; feel better now. Back to the RD talk.

    • BRC: they’ve gone timid over cranking out fully made-in-U.S. versions to fly. Good Gawd, why?? That’s just pitiful!

      Well put, but welcome to US industry. We don’t actually need to make anything, we can import everything, export all our manufacturing jobs, and employ people playing financial gambling games with somebody else’s money. Consider the ISS. American taxpayers have paid Italy to learn how to make modules (commercial versions of which they now make for Orbital); we’ve employed Russians to keep the Soyuz launcher and capsules in business, and to build most of our rocket engines; we’ve employed Europeans and Japanese to develop space tugs to compete with SpaceX and Orbital; and now we’ve employed Europeans to build the expendable portion of our deep space capsule, guaranteeing work as long as that capsule stays in business. It’s no wonder we have so little manufacturing employment.

      — Donald

    • Fred Willett

      And who exactly wants to buy them?
      AJ won’t waste effort making product they can’t sell.

  • Dinsdale Jr

    The reason the USAF loves the Atlas V is because the Atlas V earned that. The RD-180 is the most advanced RP-1 engine in the world, and RP-1 is a better atmospheric propellant than H2 or Methane due to its high energy density and non-cryogenic nature.

    Replacing an engine on a rocket is not unheard of. The best example I can think of is the Atlas III when Lockheed switched to the RD-180. It’s much cheaper to recertify than to build a whole new rocket, unless you happen to have a billion internet dollars to donate, of course.

    Finally, a 1Mlb-thrust engine will increase Atlas V 552 performance to near Delta IV H performance. Suddenly, the pricetag for those big geostationary satellites the USAF and NRO like see their launch costs cut by two-thirds. No other single-stick rocket can accomplish this. Delta IV is underpowered and expensive due to its hydrogen lower stage, and Falcon 9 is underpowered from it’s RP-1 upper stage.

    • Garp Newton

      The RL-10 upper stage is underpowered despite it’s Isp. Kerosene or RP-1 is not an optimal fuel for reusability, and the Falcon 9R is already to defacto Atlas V replacement vehicle. The problem is the Delta IV as backup, and I have just proposed a viable replacement for that, which is reusable, already well on its way to development, and with Aerojet SRM assistance combined with the deep throttling capabilities of the BE-3, the core stage is orbital capable. A vacuum rated BE-3 as upper stage is equivalent to four RL-10s. If you don’t like the SRMs, use F-1X boosters instead. I’m not sure if Elon is going to be too keen on selling F9Rs as core stage boosters for a dual fuel vehicle and I’m pretty sure that’s already gone the way of the Dodo anyways. Ideally you would want methane booster with a hydrogen upper stage, and this RFI gives Mr. Bezos the chance to propose a methane engine. I’ve just proposed a quick LEGO Frankenrocket that could meed a 2018 deadline, come in at a reasonable cost and possibly lure the legacy contractors into cooperation.


        Enthusiasts are putting way too much stock in re-usability as applied to national security spaceflights. More often than not, DoD/NRO will want a factory-fresh F9 core that will require all the fuel be dedicated to placing a payload in orbit even if it has to pay more to get it there. Re-usability has a lot of promise, but it’s not a foregone conclusion yet and will take some time before customers both in the civil sector and the national security payload market will trust a re-used core for their payloads.

        • Garp Newton

          Then they can certainly stick with the Delta IV and Delta IV Heavy. Then rational people would ask why are they requesting information on a new rocket at all? The fact that they issued this RFI at all indicates that what you are saying is simply not true. At all.

    • Vladislaw

      Elements of the Airforce “loves the Atlas” Others in the airforce would rather see more funding for their projects and would like cheaper launch systems to the extra funds could go to them. The DOD is still pursuing how many different launch sytems to make it cheaper to launch more sats with shorter lead times.

  • Heard today news 1000 Russian troops invade into Ukraine with tanks and military vehicles fired missiles from Russia at a Ukraine border post, then rolled into the country. That opened a new front in the war in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russia separatists and the new government of President Petro Poroshenko.I wonder if this accelirate Air Force RFI more than ever before! Hre the link

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