Compromise Appropriations Bill Includes $220 Million for RD-180 Replacement

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Updated at 8:19 p.m.

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers announced a deal Dec. 9 on a 2015 spending plan that includes $220 million for the development of a new rocket propulsion system to replace the Russian-made RD-180 that powers United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket.

The money was included in the massive omnibus spending bill despite an objection from the U.S. Air Force, which in November said there is no clear path for acquiring a new engine and that it would require extensive changes to any of the launch vehicles at its disposal.

“[W]e don’t have a program to spend that $220 million,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said at a Dec. 5 breakfast here.

Report language accompanying the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act for 2015, which funds most federal activities for the remainder of the current fiscal year, or through September, gives the Air Force six months to come up with a strategy for risk reduction and technology maturation for the new engine. The House approved the bill Dec. 11. Consideration of the bill in the Senate is pending.

The push for a new U.S. rocket engine has been fueled in large part by concerns about the future availability of the RD-180 as U.S. tensions with Russia escalate over the crisis in Ukraine. The program itself is named the Competitive Rocket Innovation Motor/Engine Arrangement, or CRIMEA, the name of the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia this past March.

“We have a lot of work to do to figure out how to work the future of our launch enterprise,” Hyten said. “And it’s going to be a challenge to figure out how to get there by 2019.”

The bill calls for a demonstration of the new engine in 2019. This roughly tracks with the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, which prohibits the use of the RD-180 after 2019. The House has approved the bill and the Senate approved the bill Dec. 12.

The Atlas 5 is used, along with ULA’s Delta 4 rocket, to launch the lion’s share of U.S. national security, weather and scientific satellites.

In recent correspondence sent to Capitol Hill, the Defense Department complained that a new engine development program would lead to “yet another engine that would fail to be integrated into a viable launcher, especially when it can meet the assured access to space requirement with existing privately funded vehicle families. It is nearly impossible to develop a stand-alone rocket engine that can meet the needs of more than a single launch vehicle, or without extensive changes to even that single vehicle.”

Denver-based ULA has enlisted the Blue Origin rocket venture to develop a new liquid-natural-gas-fueled engine that the companies believe could be ready by 2019 with out financial support from the government. Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, plans to compete for national security launch business with its Falcon 9 rocket, which is expected to win Air Force certification before the end of this year.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announcing engine partnership at National Press Club in September 2014.
ULA CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announcing engine partnership at National Press Club in September 2014. Credit: SpaceNews photo/Brian Berger

Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, of Hawthorne, California, plans to compete for national security launch business with its Falcon 9 rocket, which is expected to win Air Force certification before the end of this year.

The Air Force portion of the omnibus spending bill also includes:

  • Language requiring the Air Force to end the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program if the final satellite, known as Flight 20, does not launch by the end of calendar year 2016. Lawmakers have expressed reservations about funding the satellite’s considerable storage costs, and at the same time want to increase the number of U.S. national security launches that are competitively awarded. Hyten said Dec. 5 that a decision on the fate of the satellite had not yet been made. The GAO said Dec. 9 that the storage of the weather satellite is the largest single projected cost for satellite storage in the next five years.
  • $20 million for work on a space-based digital navigation instrument as a possible alternative to the payload developed for the service’s new-generation GPS 3 satellites. The GPS 3 satellites are about two years behind schedule due primarily to delays with the payload developed by Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, New York.
  • $125 million for an additional competitive national security launch. In unveiling its 2015 budget request, the Air Force said it would reduce the number of competitively awarded missions from 14 to seven or eight. The service cited changing requirements — satellites lasting longer on orbit and stretched-out procurement cycles — as factors in that decision.

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