Updated F-1 Could Replace RD-180 Rocket Engine


A proposed U.S. rocket engine similar to the iconic Apollo-era F-1 could replace the Russian technology found on many American military boosters, according to the firms behind its design.

What’s more, it could be compatible with both Pentagon and NASA rockets, so the same propulsion system that may someday send astronauts to Mars could also be used to launch military and spy satellites, they say.

The new engine, a liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled system known as the AR-1, would be smaller than the F-1 that powered the Saturn V rocket, but have higher performance and provide some 500,000 pounds of thrust, according to Steve Cook, director of corporate development at Huntsville, Alabama-based Dynetics, which has partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne to design the technology.

“Imagine taking a big old F-1 and being able to put it in a much more compact unit and get much more performance out of it,” he said in a telephone interview.

Under a contract for a program called Advanced Booster Engineering Demonstration and Risk Reduction, engineers at Dynetics in October 2012 began working on ways to lower risk – and thus cost – associated with building a future first-stage engine for the NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket designed to carry astronauts to the moon, asteroids and eventually Mars.

The SLS will use solid rocket engines left over from the space shuttle and may transition to LOX-kerosene systems. NASA in 2011 retired the shuttle and currently relies on Russia for rides to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz rockets at almost $70 million per seat.

Last year, at NASA’s request, Dynetics expanded the work to include modifying the design to also serve as a possible replacement to the Russian-made RD-180, used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas V in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

Rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the latter’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this year has drawn calls from some lawmakers and officials to end American reliance on Russia for access to space.

While Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has said deliveries of the RD-180 engine continue without interruption, she is also exploring ways to fund the development of a potential replacement Рand trying to open national-security launches to competition. The market is currently dominated by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture called United Launch Alliance LLC, which makes the Atlas V and Delta IV family of boosters.

In the 1990s, with the shuttle making regular trips to the space station, domestic investment in LOX-hydrocarbon booster technology fell off dramatically, Cook said. “We basically outsourced it to the Russians,” he said.

If the Air Force decides to move forward with a similar risk-reduction and technology development program as NASA, a prototype of the AR-1 could be ready in 2-1/2 years and “get to a full-up operational engine by 2019,” Cook said.

Other companies such as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., Blue Origin and, of course, the incumbent, ULA, will likely vie for any new government funding or program to develop a successor engine.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Will

    You’d think after so many decades we’d be able to produce our own rocket engines. So sad.

    • Ryan

      We do make rocket engines. We don’t make *some* rocket engines. Big difference.

    • gopher65

      The US State Department really pushed to have Russian engines used. They knew the Russians were going to be selling off a lot of old Soviet hardware, and they wanted to make sure it didn’t get into the “wrong hands”. So you can blame them (in part) for the fact that Russian engines are being used.

      • ghostwhowalksnz

        Its the technology, the russians had a more efficent design.

      • Mastro

        Yeah- it was a Yeltsin- or early Putin- era decision.

        Worked for about 10 years- but is damn awkward now.

      • Mastro

        Back in the mid- late ’90’s we thought Russia was just going to be a big business partner- before it became the KGB/organized crime country it is today.

  • Bernard

    We should be using American rockets to launch American equipment. Especially for things that are vital for our defense.

    We have companies that can do this work, we should be using them.

  • tiger

    “Our Germans are better than their Germans…..” –The Right Stuff

    • wise up

      that’s like saying their feces smell better in my house than in their house.

    • David

      Wrong! The Russians did it on their own! Are could have but… Von Braun inspired by Robert Goddard

  • Andy

    That what happen when you OUT SOURCES ….you become a morons and depend on other…..

  • William_C1

    This is worth serious consideration. More power = more payload.

  • rtsy

    What’s with all the anti-russia stuff? The article says the company designing the AR-1 is based in Alabama. Last I checked that was in America. You should be saying, “Hooray! We’re getting it right!” instead of complaining that we aren’t.

  • Dfens

    This is just a bunch of companies angling for another big development program. You and I take all the risk, and they make all the profit. How about we have a good old fashioned competition for who makes the next great American made rocket engine? Show up at the test stand two years from next Tuesday and the best engine for the best price wins.

    That will never work. No welfare for the rich involved.

    • paperpushermj

      And who pays for the hundreds of millions of dollars in Engine development for the losers in your world? If you say the developers do, don’t expect many to show up.

      • Dfens

        Funny how SpaceX could design their own rocket engine, but a multinational defense corporation worth hundreds of billions of dollars can only develop a new rocket if all the risk is on the back of the US taxpayer.

    • todd

      good call “no rich welfare”

  • IronV

    The amazing Apollo/Saturn program bears new fruit. What a great concept backed by superior design, development and manufacturing. Hats off to our Dads once again.

  • The decline in American innovation in rocket technology has been going on for decades with few exceptions. Hopefully programs like this and SpaceX developments with the Merlin and still larger engines marks the turning point.

  • Andrzej Kotarski

    I agree, that the reliance on others in vital issues ends bad. Especially in space. The example of space actors, that are going own way and are not dependable on external sources only like China and India are the example that crucial competences shouldn’t be outsourced. Including all stages of the chain of value of space technologies. From the design to operational phase and disposal.

  • Dec

    Any of you here wondering what happened to an “updated F-1” during the Space Shuttle program?

    The F in F-1 stands for Failure.

  • Known Ranger

    The original proposal to USG for EELV called for US-built RD-180. Unfortunately Boeing theft of LM data caused great upheaval in initial EELV award/penalty to Boeing and caused subsequent ULA formation between LM and Boeing. US built RD-180 was dropped none the less.

  • footyfoot

    The SSME was not an upgraded F-1. Not even on the same development path. But Dec is most certainly a troll.

  • scott

    I read something on Ars Technica about this I believe:

    Pretty nice story, handcrafted engines. Imagine losing those skills. It happens over and over again as history repeats itself.