The US should develop a new engine for the Atlas V launch vehicle, said the outgoing head of the US Air Force Space Command. (United Launch Alliance)
WASHINGTON — The outgoing head of the US Air Force Space Command said the time is right for a new rocket engine to be developed in the United States, regardless of whether current engine sales are cut off by Russia.
“For our industrial base, for our leadership in rocket propulsion, it would be interesting to do a national program on a new engine to regain what I think is required world leadership,” Gen. William Shelton told reporters Tuesday.
He said he expects to know more about the future direction of a potential engine replacement in the “next couple of months.”
The RD-180 engine, used on the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V launch vehicle, is a Russian-built engine. Questions about the future of the RD-180 arose quickly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. But the issue intensified following statements from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin that he would look to cut off the RD-180 supply for Pentagon launches.
Shelton reiterated that, since Rogozin’s threat, there have been no signs that Russia plans to actually cut off the flow of RD-180 engines. In fact, this week a Russian state media outlet quoted Rogozin as saying sales would continue as long as they were profitable for Russia.
That hasn’t stopped calls in Congress for investment in a new engine design, and despite the Russian threat moving to the background, Shelton recommended proceeding with plans to develop a new engine as a prudent step. Recent events have reason to give him “pause” when considering future economic deals with Russia.
The two questions surrounding a new engine are whether the technical expertise still exists in the United States to build a system, and how much it would cost in a budget-strapped environment.
“I think we’ve still got a lot of people in the country that have liquid rocket engine experience, [but] the scope is much different than what it’s been in the past,” Shelton said, acknowledging the first issue. “We really haven’t built a new rocket engine in this country since the early 2000s. Since then we really haven’t built one. So that doesn’t bring in the new blood and talent, people coming in right out of college.”
In the past, Shelton has indicated the need for caution given the potentially high price tag on the program. However, if money was no object, he indicated a new engine would be his preference.
“I would say yes, let’s go, for those reasons,” he said. “I think there is a national security imperative here, the need for a mitigation strategy, and I think the industrial base would benefit greatly.”
Shelton acknowledged ULA for an initiative, announced in June, to fund research into a next-generation engine.
“They told us they were going to do it, but at the same time this was theirs,” he said. “This isn’t a direction from the Air Force — this is prudent planning from ULA in their perspective.” ■