House Intel Committee To Push for RD-180 Alternative

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The U.S. House Intelligence Committee likely will make a bipartisan push to fund an American-made rocket engine that would rival the Russian-made RD-180 that powers the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, a key U.S. government workhorse, according to Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the panel’s ranking member.

Ruppersberger said his staff estimates the development program would cost about $1.2 billion and take about four years. The resulting engine could be used to launch commercial as well as national security missions, he said. 

Other House committees also could try this year to fund work on an RD-180 alternative, he said.

“I’ll move it any we can,” Ruppersberger said in an interview April 17, adding that he believes there is widespread support in Congress for the effort. “Americans don’t want to take second place to Russia. You’ve got to pick priorities. This is a high priority.”

With tensions high concerning Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, U.S. lawmakers have stepped up the rhetoric about U.S. reliance on the RD-180 for the Atlas 5, which along with ULA’s Delta 4 rocket launches the vast majority of U.S. national security payloads. As a result, the Defense Department and the Air Force are both examining the feasibility of a U.S.-built alternative.

“We should develop a U.S. replacement for the Russian RD-180 engine,” Ruppersberger said during an April 17 speech at the Geoint conference. “We can’t allow the Russians to hold our industry hostage. And at the same time, we cannot support any efforts to ban Russian purchases now, before we have an American option.”

ULA currently has 2.5 years worth of Atlas 5 engine inventory on hand at its factory in Decatur, Ala., and is expected to receive five engines next year and six engines in 2015. Ruppersberger said that supply “could be cut off tomorrow.”