Air Force steps up the competition for a new rocket engine

The Air Force is continuing its push to find a domestic replacement for a Russian-made rocket engine for its satellite launches, awarding two new contracts for an alternative engine.

The service has awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a $115.3 million contract for development of the company’s booster-stage AR1 rocket propulsion system prototype and United Launch Services a $46.6 million deal to develop its booster-stage Vulcan BE-4 and upper-stage Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) rocket propulsion system prototype, according to a Defense Department announcement.

The awards, in support of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, follow contracts the Air Force awarded in January to Orbital ATK and SpaceX for similar rocket engine prototypes. The Air Force is looking to end its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which is used in the Atlas V rockets used by United Launch Alliance (United Launch Services’ parent company), which to date has held a virtual monopoly on the Air Force’s military satellite launches.

After Russian incursions into Ukraine, Congress pressured the Air Force to move away from the RD-180, and in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act included a mandate to find a domestically produced alternative by 2019. Although Air Force officials questioned whether the 2019 deadline was feasible and Congress eventually backed off its deadline, the Air Force is continuing to look for an alternative.

As with the Orbital ATK and SpaceX contracts, Aerojet Rocketdyne and United Launch Services will contribute funds to the rocket engine development. (When the Air Force awarded the first two deals in January, it said further contract awards were likely.) Aerojet will contribute $57.6 million upfront. If all options are exercised, the company would spend up to $268 million, while the government will invest up to $536 million.

ULS will start out contributing $40.8 million and as much as $134.2 million, with the government investing up to $201.6 million if all options are exercised.

Launches of the military’s security satellites have been a point of contention, with Elon Musk’s SpaceX suing the Air Force in 2014 over its sole-source $11 billion contract with ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for the EELV program. Early last year, SpaceX agreed to drop the lawsuit after the Air Force certified the company’s Falcon 9 rocket to compete for future EELV contracts.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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