New Engine: ULA is starting the hunt for a replacement to the Russian-made RD-180 engine, used in the Atlas V launch vehicle. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — When the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced on June 16 that it had reached an agreement with “multiple” US companies to study a next-generation engine replacement, the joint venture took a big step to ward off challenges to its use of a Russian-made engine.
The RD-180 engine, which powers the ULA Atlas V, has become a point of contention for members of Congress — and the public — who wonder why a key national asset for space launch relies on imported equipment from Russia. That issue only worsened when Russian officials threatened to halt sales of the RD-180 for military use.
While insisting the RD-180 pipeline remains open, ULA President and CEO Michael Gass wants to fund companies to look into what a next-generation, American engine could look like if Congress goes through with plans for a replacement program.
“Given the turmoil in Ukraine, we do believe now is the right time for a domestic investment, which is why we announced on Monday that we are supporting a new engine study, with multiple companies,” Gass said.
Gass, during a June 18 press event, would not identify the companies involved, but Aerojet Rocketdyne and ATK are capable of developing a new engine. A spokesman for Aerojet declined to comment on ULA’s announcement; a spokesperson for ATK did not respond to requests for comment.
Any hope of keeping costs on the engine down depend on the commercial market, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski.
“I want this engine to enable US launch companies to be competitive in the world, not just in national security, because then I can have more launches that will use this rocket, which means I can drive down the cost of the rocket,” Pawlikowski told Defense News on June 11. “So I believe the initial step will be to understand what the market is for this engine.”
Pawlikowski, former head of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, who is transitioning to head up service acquisition at the Pentagon, called for an in-depth study of what the market can support.
“The bottom line is you need to do the business case. What’s the business case for that engine? If you can’t make the business case for it, then it’s going to be a very expensive proposition,” Pawlikowski said. “If it were me to try and develop this strategy, I’d be looking for a public-private partnership approach to the actual development and that would drive down the cost.”
“Part of the purpose of these study contracts it to refine the technical concept, as well as the business case estimates, and really go into this with eyes wide open,” Gass said. “When you put some money into working out some of the technical [aspects], you can hone or get a better level of fidelity on the nonrecurring and recurring cost estimates. We need to understand the right business case. We need to look at multiple options, so if and when the government funds such a program, we’re in a position to support it.”
If it finds the business case, would ULA invest in a new engine from its own funds? “Absolutely,” Gass said. But “that has been the challenge. … You have to have a market, you have to have an acquisition strategy for buying launch vehicles that makes sense.”
Pawlikowski noted that there is already one RD-180 alternative out there — the Merlin engine used by SpaceX on its Falcon 9. While it requires nine Merlin rockets to equal the power of one RD-180, ordering those quantities allows SpaceX to maintain a stronger production line.
Asked June 10 whether his company would take part in an engine development program, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, responded “maybe.”
“It sort of depends on what the parameters are of the engine procurement,” Musk said, before taking a shot at rival ULA. “I don’t think we’d want to just replace the RD-180. I think the days of the Atlas V are numbered, so there’s no point in creating a rocket for an engine that won’t exist.”
“There’s so many variations on this engine question,” Pawlikowski said. “Do you make one big engine? Do you do what Elon has done and you have more than one engine and you gang them together? There’s value to both [approaches].”
And the RD-180 has its supporters. “There’s nothing out there that’s better in terms of weight-to-power ratio than the RD-180,” said Marco Caceres, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. “I don’t know if you can come up with an engine as powerful as the RD-180 in a short time from scratch.
“It’s really more about developing the least expensive engine that will make the Atlas V much cheaper commercially.” ■