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 - and 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.

    • curious

      American rockets, like the one exploded over Texas a few days ago?

      I think you meant to say “WE should be using American rockets to ruin American equipment, especially for things that are vital for our defense.”

      Have you experienced any problems with Russian rockets so far?

      • Bernard

        I have a huge problem with Russian rockets and it starts with Vladimir Putin. We should not depend on equipment from an adversarial nation. Regardless, that controlled detonation you mentioned what was a saftey measure. That’s how testing works. I wouldn’t care if they all explode, as long as it’s American. If we can’t build them then we need to fix that, there is no excuse for us.

      • http://twitter.com/ScienceAdvisor_ @ScienceAdvisor_

        Space X has 100% reliability regarding payloads to orbit.

        A prototype self destructed when it went off course.

        Get it together, pal.

        • Bud Brandsen

          That’s not entirely true.

          While Space X has enjoyed success with Falcon 9, the vehicle that was going to change the satellite launch industry didn’t fare as well.

          As a matter of fact, their first 3 launches were failures.

          Launch 1 - Falconsat-1 (DARPA)
          Launch 2 - Demosat (DARPA)
          Launch 3 - Trailblazer (ORS)
          - PRESat (NASA)
          - NanoSail-D (NASA)
          - Explorers (Celestis)

          All were orbital payloads and were lost.
          Space X is an impressive success story, but, let’s not rewrite history.

      • http://twitter.com/ScienceAdvisor_ @ScienceAdvisor_


      • jef

        Russian Rocket Reliability:

      • Ben

        That was an experimental rocket testing vertical launch and vertical landing, not the same proven Falcon 9 that they use for orbit launches…

      • Nostradamus

        How about the fact that when the Russian decide to ban their export to the US, we would be left with no capability to launch our on stuff for many years until one is fully develop and certified in our soil. Should we wait until that happens?

        Can you confirm that no Russian rockets have exploded during launch in during the past decade? The Russian do ruin Russian equipment with Russian rockets mind you. Refer to http://foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/russian-proton-m… for history lesson.

        You need to look beyond today while applying the lessons from history. We should never be dependent on others to maintain our capabilities to protect our nation. Especially in troubled times like nowadays.

      • g.g

        Russian launch vehicles have had several times more failures in the past few years. Starting from 2011, as far as I can count, there were something like 14 failed Russian launches but only 2 failed American launches.

  • 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…..

    • curious

      Like bringing in NAZI scientists and engineers to design and develop rocket engines?

      • Andy

        American Scientist are not good enought ?

        • Ben

          Not during and immediately after WWII.

          History. Do you know it?

          • Andy

            who atlking about WWII, this is 2014 dude.

          • Dec

            Yes, it’s 2014 and American scientists are still not good enough.


        • tiger

          Americans would rather play beer pong & go to Saturday football than sit in a Thermodynamics class. Sorry, I remember college. Most of my peers were in bull crap majors like art history. Not sitting at 8pm in a statistics course. In fact I had 6 guys from Kuwait in class.

          • blight_qwerty

            Don’t go to the higher state university system. Go to the intermediate one, or the state colleges instead. In california, that would be the CSU system versus the UC system. I had the fortune of going to one of the Polytechnics.

      • Bruce

        Silly comment, everyone that could grabbed NAZI scientists, this is not a USA-specific thing.

        • Dfens

          It’s funny, you can’t call someone who swam the Rio Grande to get into this country an “illegal immigrant” these days, but you can slur someone who immigrated to this country legally and designed a successful rocket program to land the first human on the moon as a Nazi. I’m sure feckless is lucky if he can get off the couch to microwave some popcorn let alone do something that would actually count toward making this nation great.

      • Pat

        Damn right, they were the best! Better here than working for the Russians.

      • Jim Hillhouse

        The F-1 was not developed by the Germans from Paper Clip—it’s as all-American as you can get.

        • Jack Hagerty

          That is correct. It actually started out as an advanced Air Force heavy lift booster program around 1958. It was well along in design when tapped to power the Apollo programs “big gun.” Of course, that was being lead by NASA Marshall, home of von Braun’s team.

      • Aleksandar011

        NAZI scientists, you mean like Helmut Gröttrup and many other German rocket scientists which worked for Soviet? And don’t forget Nazis which worked on Soviet nuclear program: Manfred von Ardenne(got Stalin prize twice, and Lenin prize in 1970), Peter Adolf Thiessen, Max Christian Theodor Steenbeck, Gernot Zippe(centrifuge isotope separation) and many others. Over 300 Nazis worked in Soviet nuclear program mostly on Isotope separation. Methods they developed were used by Soviet Union, Germany, Pakistan are currently by Iran!

  • 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.

    • DDP

      Re-read the article. We have been relying on Russian RD-180s for years now.
      This is a strategic mistake. We used to build great things, where has all that American can do know how gone?

      • oldfedvet1941

        Thanks to the current Administration and the Idiot in the White House!

        • Dfens

          Actually it was the idiot before the the last idiot.

          • Dec

            What about the idiots who voted in the elections?

          • Ziv

            It is idiots all the way down!

        • IronV

          The Obama administration wasn’t party to any of the decisions to use Russian rocket motors. But they may well get us out of it…

          • Jim Hillhouse

            The resurrection of the F-1 was because of the SLS program and therefore despite, not because of, actions by the Obama White House and some of their political appointees in NASA. Recall that it was those appointees who, in their efforts to oppose the SLS program by not submitting the Section 309 Report as required in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, got NASA for the first time served a Congressional subpoena from the Senate Commerce Committee controlled by their own Party, a Committee only days away from a contempt of Congress motion, which would have been another first for the space agency. And those same former political appointees continue to voice their desire to kill the SLS program, which is in part funding the F-1 work.

      • tiger

        Space is a narrow marketplace. Building boosters is costly, technical & not a high profit biz. You have gone from a dozen players in the old days to basically just LockMart today.

      • derp

        the article is about the update of an old engine. way too focus on the bad stuff

  • 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.

        • paperpushermj

          SpaceX receives Gov. Money

          • Dfens

            Yes, they sell rockets to the government and the government pays them money. That does not negate the fact that SpaceX designed and tested their rocket engines on their own dime. When things went wrong, SpaceX spent their own money fixing the flaws in their design. They didn’t put all the risk on the US taxpayer’s back, they shouldered it themselves. Is that concept somehow beyond your comprehension?

          • paperpushermj

            Hate to pop your bubble…well not really!

            ” But SpaceX’s research and development is largely funded by taxpayers. The real kicker is that if, and when, SpaceX’s development is complete, NASA will not own the technology, SpaceX will own it. What exactly is NASA buying?”

          • Dfens

            Repeating internet lies does not make them true.

          • paperpushermj

            And Denial is not just a River in Africa.
            I give supportive information and you give your opinion.

          • gath

            The engine development at SpaceX is certainly not “funded by taxpayers”, unless by “funded by taxpayers” you mean “paid for by revenue brought in by providing contracted services, some of which go to NASA”. If you want to see taxpayers directly funding engine development for a private company, look at the circus around the RD-180 replacement and Aerojet.

    • 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.

  • http://www.DrewExMachina.com Andrew LePage

    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.

    • wise up

      You are obviously stating a rhetorical question.

      The Shuttle program was for real because, while being expensive and challenging, it was technologically manageable.

      The Apollo program, on the other hand, was for show and propaganda from the early beginning because they knew that the technology involved simply could not be acquired in a matter of years. To this very day, the technology is not there. When GW Bush was announcing a plan to “return to the Moon”, he put the year to 2025. That was in 2006 or 2007? So 18 years of preparation for a mission that took less than 8 years in 1960s?

      Anyone with some common sense should have smelled a rat right there.

  • 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.

    • wise up

      If you agree with what Dec is saying and call him a troll, then you are more of a troll than he is, for obvious reasons.

  • 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.