Op-ed | Building on a successful record in space to meet the challenges ahead

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Let’s set the record straight on Russian rocket engines and next-generation American launch vehicles.

There’s been a lot of discussion on the timeline for replacing the RD-180, the Russian-made engine for the Atlas 5. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal, “Pentagon Faces Delays in Shift Away From Russian Rocket Engines,” suggested that United Launch Alliance (ULA) – and therefore the United States Air Force – will be “forced to rely on the Russian-made RD-180 through 2024 or 2028.”  Those dates are inaccurate.

ULA is confident its engine and rocket development efforts will meet the 2022 deadline imposed by the Congress for ending purchases of the RD-180. We’re making great progress on Vulcan – the all-American replacement for the venerable Atlas rocket – and have two of the country’s best engine companies working on two options for its engine.

We’re making enhancements to Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage to add crucial heavy lift capability for the Air Force. That will add about six months to the program’s original schedule, but the resulting delay is months, not years, and it’s a purpose-driven change to deliver better performance, not a schedule slip.

The Vulcan-Centaur combination will permit launch of the nation’s heaviest satellites to any of the nine reference orbits our national security customers require. Moreover, the enhanced Centaur stage will allow this heavy lift capability without resorting to the costly three-booster configuration of today’s “heavy” launch configurations.

Ultimately – and regrettably – what gets lost in the never-ending analysis of RD-180 inventory, timelines and delivery status is a much more important story about the future of launch.

ULA is developing a launch vehicle that will do what no other rocket can do. It will not only bring unprecedented capabilities for security, scientific and commercial missions, it will be a cornerstone of America’s assured access to space for decades. ULA and its partners have already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into Vulcan, and we are proud to support thousands of Americans jobs in states across the country.

Once fully operational, Vulcan will be the only American-made rocket that meets all government requirements and meets our country’s current and future national security objectives in space.  Importantly, it will also do so at a far lower cost to taxpayers while still delivering even greater capabilities.

ULA’s years-long commitment to replacing our current vehicles with a next-generation, American launch system as soon as possible remains unchanged.  The incredible capabilities our country has in orbit today are the product of a successful public-private partnership and a collective focus on mission success. We are confident that steadfast commitment and focus will serve our nation well in the years ahead and beyond.

Congress has made its decision to transition to a new, American-made engine, and ULA is doing just that. Vulcan is the future, and will help usher in a vibrant, innovative and competitive American launch industry that will power exceptional achievements in space.