ULA considers non-Russian launch engine for Atlas V

RD-180 engine for Atlas V

The Russian-made RD-180 in test firing.

Under growing political pressure over its use of a Russian-made engine in its Atlas V rockets, United Launch Alliance said it would explore next-generation propulsion systems with an eye toward the launch of a U.S.-made first-stage engine in 2019.

ULA holds a near monopoly on Air Force satellite launches but has come under increasing political pressure over its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engines that currently power the Atlas V first stage.

Commercial space upstart Space Exploration Technologies Inc., or SpaceX, recently won a protest seeking to compete with ULA for future Air Force satellite launches. ULA's reliance on the Russian engine played a central role in the dispute.

SpaceX is lobbying the Air Force to consider a version of its Falcon 9 rocket to launch military satellites, which SpaceX claims it can do more cheaply.

Seeking to regain the upper hand in the political fracas, ULA said June 16 it has signed commercial contracts with "multiple American companies" it did not identify to investigate alternatives to the RD-180. The focus of new engine development will be a liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon first stage.

"ULA has a number of very promising alternatives [to the RD-180] and we are working with the very best propulsion companies in America," George Sowers, ULA's vice president of advanced programs, said in a statement. Sowers, who heads ULA’s propulsion study, said many of the propulsion technologies are "mature."

ULA, a 50-50 joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, said it expects to select a propulsion concept and engine supplier by the end of the year. The initial launch of the new engine is currently scheduled for 2019.

In the meantime, ULA has stockpiled RD-180 engines for some future Atlas V launches. ULA's other workhouse, the Delta IV, does not use the Russian engines. 

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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