U.S. Funds Development of Russian Rocket Engine Replacement


U.S. lawmakers have agreed to fund the development of an American-made replacement to the Russian engine used on some military rockets.

The massive spending bill, called the Omnibus Appropriations Act, which Congress may vote on today, would avert a government shutdown and fund most federal agencies for the rest of the year, including the Defense Department.

The legislation would provide $220 million “to accelerate rocket propulsion system development,” according to the bill’s accompany text, which clearly targets the Russian-made RD-180 even though it doesn’t specify the propulsion system.

The RD-180, made by NPO Energomash, is used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas V booster in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is sole supplier of the acquisition effort, which launches military and spy satellites into space.

While the engine is relatively cheap and has contributed to ULA’s long record of successful launches, it has become a flash point in the debate over American reliance on Russian technology for national-security programs, particularly after tensions grew between the U.S. and Russia over the latter’s military involvement this year in the Ukraine.

The engine has also been cited by such companies as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, as reason to open more EELV launches to competition from American commercial space firms.

The additional funding, however, may benefit other companies, such as Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has partnered with Huntsville, Alabama-based Dynetics, to design a new rocket engine called the AR-1, a liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled propulsion system that’s similar to the iconic Apollo-era F1.

The companies have pitched the AR-1 as a possible candidate for both NASA and Pentagon rockets, including the Atlas made by Lockheed, the Antares made by Orbital Sciences Corp. and eventually NASA’s Space Launch System, which is slated to use solid rocket engines left over from the space shuttle program but may transition to LOX-kerosene systems in the future.

If the Air Force decides to move forward with a similar risk-reduction and technology development program as NASA, an AR-1 prototype could be ready in 2–1/2 years and an operational engine could be in place by 2019, company officials have said.

That time line is similar to the legislative language, which specifies a “target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019.”

The bill would direct Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden “to develop an affordable, innovative, and competitive strategy for this development effort that includes an assessment of the potential benefits and challenges of using public-private partnerships, innovative teaming arrangements, and small business considerations.”

It states, “The strategy should include plans for targeted risk reduction projects and technology maturation efforts to buy down risk and accelerate potential launch system solutions,” and calls for the document to be submitted to the congressional defense committees within six months.

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.
  • guest

    Here we go, in 10 years of funding still wont have a operational engine. Why dont they just copy the Russian one, after thats what they would do.

    • lemoutonzelectrique

      Add that this will probablly stall the Human Rating of AtlasV for quite some time too! CST will have to ride atop a Falcon 9 (which it can) for several of its first flights. if it ever flies atop an ULA rocket outside the realm of infographics.

      The people at SpaceX must have wider and wider smiles every times there’s a daily «Space News Flash».

      Copying the Russian engine would probably take the same time/money in reverse engineering, re-tests, re-certification, design changes imposed by said wish to human rate this candle, than starting from scratch, doing things as you’re used too.

      The Antares’ AJ-26 engine should have taught us at least this much: «you can’t turn old into new, nor should any American engineer ever mess with Russian engines while thinking seriously he’ll make it better.»

  • t1oracle

    Why can’t they just use an existing SpaceX rocket engine?

    • Ben

      It doesn’t feed the machine.

      • Dfens

        If we don’t have that development program where some scum bag contractor gets $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend, what’s the point in doing it?

  • rat

    If the US needed a rocket engine tomorrow, it’d be ready on the launch pad. But you gotta let beurocracy play itself out. I only hope the Marines don’t want a VSTOL version…………..

    • Dfens

      Technically all rockets are vertical take off, vertical land vehicles. That’s part of why no one has ever got more than one 9 of reliability out of them.

  • Jeff

    Why can’t they just start manufacturing the old F-1 engines used on Apollo? They seemed to work well enough to get to the moon.

    • LPF

      Because basically each one of those engines were unique so therefore there are no complete drawings of them, although have heard there is a company that got hold of one of them and is trying to reverse engineer it.

      • xXTomcatXx

        Reminds me of the post WWII debacle of trying to figure out how to build more A-Bombs. Seems like everyone was so focused on getting one, that they never bothered to properly document how they made it.

        • blight_weroasdfl

          Well, without testing physics packages it’s hard to tell if the engineering changes have led to less effective weapons. Take the whole AMRAAM propulsion defect as an example. What if we’d never fired any AMRAAM’s until wartime, and only then discovered that the rocket motors were duds? It’s been a while since active manufacture and physical testing of engineered nuclear weapons, but our deterrent rests on the /theory/ that our nukes will behave to specifications in the absence of testing.

    • John Deere

      Rocketdyne, and their parent company North American Corporation, still have the technical specification of the F1, and they are being used as a basis for the new, more powerful, AR-1. Rocket engine design has improved over the past 50 years, considerably; but, these engines are not appropriate for small launch vehicles, they are for heavy lift only.

      The Russian engines are small, cheap and reliable; that’s why they were used. Unfortunately, these engines undercut our own manufacturers in the rocket industry, we couldn’t compete in the open market with the Russians. This meant we lost our ability to produce similar sized engines on demand. It’s the free market in action, love it or hate it.

  • Big-Dean

    what ever we do, DON”T give this contract to Lockhead, it’ll take 17 years and 6 Trillion dollars and it’ll still be a power point

    • Dfens

      The whole point of funding this rocket engine is so the ULA (also known as the Borg), a joint venture between Lockheed and Boeing, can compete with SpaceX without relying on a Russian engine. This will eliminate the political stigma and the potential engine shortages that could occur if Russia doesn’t like our condemnation of their latest military annexation. In short, this is all about steering more money to Lockheed.

      • Big-Dean

        hmmm, another 3 Trillion dollars down the drain, and we’ll still be talking about this project 10 years from now

        • Dfens

          My crystal ball is in the shop, but based on past history I’d say you’re right.

  • PennyFoolish

    It will be a sole sourced contract to Aerojet. It will never fly. The market moved on.

    That is because neither SpaceX nor Blue Orgion, which are both working on more avanced engines than even the AR1, don’t want the red tape of a Fed contract. Also, SpaceX Raptor is way too powerful for EELV, and they won’t sell it anyway.

    AR1, will not be cheaper nor quicker to produce than BE4, that is why ULA hired them.

  • AKO

    The financialization of the American economy

    American De-Industrialization
    Continues Unabated

    America’s economic elite has long argued that the country does not need an industrial base. The economies in states such as California and Michigan that have lost their industrial base, however, belie that claim. Without an industrial base, an increase in consumer spending, which pulled the country out of past recessions, will not put Americans back to work. Without an industrial base, the nation’s trade deficit will continue to grow. Without an industrial base, stranded in low-paying service-sector jobs. Without an industrial base, the United States will be increasingly dependent on foreign manufacturers even for its key military technology.

    The U.S. is becoming dependent on countries such as UK, Russia, France and Germany for critical weapons technology.

    • blight_

      Yep. However, the “globalized” industry assumes one factory and one supply chain can supply the world. However, this factory and supply chain is based where workers are cheapest, legislation is least annoying and the products are of acceptable quality, and can be shipped to markets at the lowest cost.

      Who in their right mind would accept decentralized regional-level production when megafactories are the most efficient way to churn out units of production? After China is too expensive, it’s on to the next continent. It’ll probably be sub-Saharan Africa.

      • AKO

        Deindustrialization led to rising costs for weapons development

        • blight_weroasdfl

          Deindustrialization would lead to rising costs for weapons /production/. Development is another matter entirely.

          • Dfens

            We have perfectly good committees that design our weapons today, so clearly we’ve got that covered. Maybe if we don’t tell our defense contractors their development contract amounts to a guarantee that the US government will pay them $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend, they won’t realize that they can spend themselves rich.

  • JohnQ

    there’s an easy solution using American industry…let’s build a space elevator! Americans (i.e., Otis) are still leaders in the elevator industry. ;-)

  • andy

    That what we get when we out source and buy other countries cheap stuff….Such a dump decision and I have see it long time ago…

  • docingram

    There are lots of engines in inventory, most were made for multiple usage for just about any payload desired. Those engines will never be used for some reason or another. As for losing the plans for the F-1 engine, that is really a bad lie. There are plans in inventory for the lathes to build civil war rifles that are still listed as secret and the laths are stored in Hawthorne, Nevada ammo storage facilities, they don’t lose plans. If the money was right a new engine will be brought out quickly, that appears to be part of the problem, “the money is not right, it is tight.” Sierra army depot in Herlong, Ca. destroyed many engines, missiles, and other munitions, SOMEBODY has an inventory of what is available and what has been destroyed. So shake out the goodies and let us get prepared to defend ourselves and explore space.

    • Stratege

      F-1 engine has significantly less efficiency than RD-170 (and its other modifications such as RD-180).

  • notmyname

    The mission, pork delivery, is being accomplished. All that matters.

  • rodrigo

    There are plenty of F-1 engines sitting around, one outside the front door at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, on the unused Saturn Vs on display at Kennedy and Houston, and the drawings and tooling are still in Canoga Park, Ca.

    Spaces is designing an F-1 size engine for heavy lift and their current engines on Falcon 9 are proving to complete with all other EELVs in existence and in design. You were right that the gov is funding to keep LM and Boeing in the game to compete with Spacex. This will help bring some production work home and infuse the technology here, while stinging Russia.