STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS “SPACE PLACE” & USED WITH PERMISSION
Aerojet Rocketdyne is pressing ahead with development of a powerful new rocket engine that company officials believe will be an attractive alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 engine that now powers the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 booster.
Despite a flawless launch record, the RD-180 has come under fire in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, with critics arguing political uncertainty and increasing discord between the United States and Russia could put downstream launches of high-priority national security payloads at risk.
On Sept. 17, ULA announced that it was partnering with Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, to develop an RD-180 replacement known as the BE-4, an engine that will develop 550,000 pounds of thrust burning oxygen with liquified natural gas.
Using two BE-4 engines in the Atlas 5’s first stage, the rocket would produce 1.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust compared to 860,000 pounds of sea level thrust generated by the RD-180. Full-scale testing of the new engine is expected in 2016 with initial flight tests in 2019.
ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno said his company studied a variety of engine alternatives, adding “we cast a pretty wide net, we went to everybody in the industry.”
“We selected Blue for a couple of reasons,” he said. “First, they are way ahead. They have this innovative technology. Of course, this is rocketry and I have contingency plans, but this is my partner, and I’m expecting Jeff to succeed.”
While Bruno did not specify what “contingency plans” ULA had if Blue Origin does not succeed with the BE-4, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced Monday that it had finalized a contract with ULA to complete detailed design studies, develop production targets and cost estimates for three liquid-fueled rocket engines and solid-fuel strap-on boosters intended to power the next generation of ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.
Two of those engines already power the Delta 4 and the upper stage of the Atlas 5. The third engine is the AR1, which will generate 500,000 pounds of thrust using oxygen and refined kerosene rocket fuel. Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported in June that Aerojet Rocketdyne was targeting the cost of a pair of AR1s at $25 million or less.
Despite ULA’s arrangement with Blue Origin, Paul Meyer, Aerojet Rocketdyne senior vice president for advanced programs and business development, told CBS News in a telephone interview Tuesday that “we still view ourselves as the lowest-risk, highest-probability-of-success option.”
“We’re not giving up the ghost” in the wake of the Blue Origin announcement, he said. “We know what’s facing everybody, and that’s what we told the Air Force. … So we’re in the game. Competition doesn’t scare us.”
Unlike the BE-4, which uses different propellants and would require more extensive changes to the Atlas 5 first stage, the AR1 “would require minimal changes to the (rocket), its ground support equipment and launch infrastructure,” Aerojet Rocketdyne said in a statement.
“The AR1’s flexible, modular design allows the engine to be configured to support multiple launch vehicles, providing a U.S.-designed and manufactured propulsion system for the Atlas 5 that can be easily adapted to power other current and future government and commercial launch vehicles,” the company said.
United Launch Alliance is a partnership between Boeing, designer of the Delta family of rockets, and Lockheed Martin, which designed the Atlas. The latest versions of both were developed for the Air Force primarily to launch spy satellites, military communications stations, navigation beacons and other national security payloads.
The Atlas 5 also is used to launch NASA planetary probes and occasional commercial satellites. The rocket has chalked up a flawless flight record — 49 successful flights in a row — since its debut in 2002.
But Elon Musk, chairman and chief designer of rival rocket builder SpaceX, has launched an aggressive attack on the Atlas 5 and its dependence on Russian propulsion technology. He also has filed a lawsuit challenging an Air Force block-buy contract with ULA, claiming his company’s Falcon 9 rocket was unfairly excluded from consideration.
On Wednesday, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced it had submitted a formal response to an Air Force request for information “on options for future booster propulsion and launch systems that could be used as alternatives to foreign-supplied RD-180 engines.”
The company said its objective is “to minimize the total lifecycle costs of national security space launches while ensuring a commercially competitive U.S. space launch enterprise that is no longer reliant on foreign suppliers.”
“Rapid development and certification of the AR1 will take place at existing manufacturing and test facilities with delivery of a flight-qualified engine planned by 2019,” the company said.