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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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.