AF secretary: Deadline to replace Russian rocket engine could be too soon

Deborah Lee James tells lawmakers that a domestic rocket engine might not be ready by 2019, because "this is rocket science."

ULA launch Atlas V

The Air Force and several U.S. companies are working to build a domestically made replacement for the Russian-made rocket engine used to launch national security satellites, but are unlikely to meet a congressional mandate to do it by 2019, the Air Force secretary told lawmakers this week.

Deborah Lee James, testifying Feb. 25 before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, said the technical challenges were too great to fit development into the narrow window set by the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress in December.

“Because this,” James said, “is rocket science.”

James said the technical experts she’s spoken with estimate that it would take six to eight years to build a new engine and another year or two to integrate it into the launch vehicle. If those estimates are right, it would push the first use of a new engine well into the 2020s.

The Russian RD-180 engine is used in in launches of Atlas V rockets by United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture that holds a virtual monopoly on the launch of Air Force satellites. The Air Force gave ULA an $11 billion sole-source contract for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launches through 2019. But the RD-180 came into disfavor with the administration and Congress last year after Russia’s incursions into Ukraine and subsequent U.S. sanctions against Russia. With that in mind, Congress added the 2019 deadline, which coincides with the end of the ULA contract, to the authorization act.

The Air Force Space Command in August 2014 announced a new acquisition strategy aimed at cutting costs and developing an American-made replacement. Among those competing to produce the new engine are a team of ULA and Blue Origin, the aerospace startup backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos; ATK Aerospace Group, which supplied the solid-rocket boosters for the space shuttle program; and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which proposes using the AR1 liquid oxygen/kerosene booster engine the company is developing.

Also, Elon Musk’s SpaceX will be able to compete for future launches using its Falcon 9 rocket after achieving Air Force certifications and, in January this year, dropping a lawsuit against the Air Force that challenged the ULA contract.

Whichever solution winds up being used is, for now, up in the air, but James told the subcommittee that the Air Force wants to avoid a gap between Congress’ 2019 cutoff date and the availability of a new engine, and suggested Congress could tweak that timetable.

 

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