Op-ed | Ukraine Working on Low-risk Rocket Engine Solution

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Recently the United States has adopted the goal of replacing the Russian RD-180 engine developed and manufactured by NPO Energomash in Russia, which is used on the first stage of the American Atlas 5 launch vehicle. The cost of these Russian engines has spiraled upward in recent years, and the U.S. government has a strong desire for a domestic replacement for the RD-180 to reduce dependence on potentially unreliable foreign suppliers for national security launches.

These and other factors form the basis of the RD-180 usage ban, which was introduced by Congress in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and is to take effect in 2019.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said: “You’re looking at six years, maybe seven years to develop an engine and another year or two beyond that to integrate. … These are hard technical problems and so to have that 2019 date there is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure we can make it.”

In reply to this statement, U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) posed a question about lifting the RD-180 ban: “Is this a question of dollars? Is it technology? Is it bureaucracy? What’s the issue here?”

In reality the issues are all of the above.

In the process of searching for strategic suppliers for a new-generation liquid rocket engine to replace the RD-180 on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 and for potential use on the future ULA Vulcan launch vehicle, the U.S. Air Force issued a Draft Request for Proposal for development of a replacement engine. Proposals should consist of U.S.-based engine production, meet the requirements of the national security space community, complete development by no later than 2019, and ensure engine availability for purchase by all interested launch providers in the United States.

Presently two U.S. companies have the highest media profile in response to this requirement for a new U.S. engine: Blue Origin, which is developing the BE-4 engine utilizing liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is working on development of the AR1 liquid oxygen-kerosene engine.

Both of these companies and their respective approaches entail unnecessary cost, schedule and technical risk.

For Aerojet, it’s necessary to reinvent LOX-rich-kerosene staged combustion technology introducing unnecessary cost, technical and schedule risk. Developing reliable and viable staged combustion technology is not a trivial undertaking and is exactly the technology that the United States does not currently possess.

On the other hand, Blue Origin’s approach is to introduce an unproven propellant combination of the scale needed for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles and also offers questionable performance benefits. The move away from liquid oxygen-kerosene will drive an additional large cost wedge to modify the existing launch vehicle and ground support infrastructure to support liquid oxygen and methane processing. The Atlas 5 is arguably one of the most reliable launch vehicles ever flown; a move toward the Blue Origin engine solution could mean the qualification of essentially a new launch vehicle, a process that is historically fraught with uncertainties.

LOX-rich staged combustion oxygen-kerosene engines have been in production for decades in Ukraine. The intricate requirements of staged combustion have long since been mastered by the Yuzhnoye State Design Office of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. The lowest-cost, lowest-risk option is to import this proven LOX-rich stage combustion technology from Ukraine and firmly establish this technology in the United States without the added cost and risks that the Aerojet and Blue Origin approaches entail.

It’s important to recognize in the context of this discussion that Ukraine is not Russia. While the two countries share a rich heritage of space industry development and common capabilities in rocket propulsion, the commonality does not extend much further at present as it relates to rocket propulsion development and technology export.

Yuzhnoye State Design Office is a proven business and technical partner to the U.S. space industry, as evidenced by its highly successful relationship with Orbital ATK on the Antares program over the last eight years.

Yuzhnoye is not interested in a replay of the unrealized RD-180 co-production concept. Yuzhnoye and Ukraine are absolutely committed to manufacturing and operations in the United States right from the beginning of this program.

One cannot understate the strategic importance of establishing the U.S.-based LOX-rich stage combustion technology and production to both Ukraine and the United States.

During the past five years Yuzhnoye, the leader of the Ukrainian space industry, has been actively working on a new first-stage liquid rocket engine family including the Guardian 250 (GU250), a formidable engine for production in the United States. Development is currently underway for critical components and units of this engine.

To achieve this goal Yuzhnoye is currently developing the modern GU250 first-stage main engine that has 551,000 pounds of thrust as well as moving forward with the establishment of production facilities in the United States. This engine is capable of throttling and utilizes the same LOX-rich staged combustion technology employed in the RD-180, which is not currently available in the United States. Combining two GU250 engines into a cluster would provide 500 tf for application in the first stages of Atlas 5, Antares, the Space Launch System, and perhaps other U.S. launch vehicles.

The GU250 would have several competitive advantages in comparison with the BE-4 and AR1.

Yuzhnoye has extensive experience in engine design and development of LOX-rich staged combustion engines that substantially mitigates development cost, technical and schedule risk.

Work on establishing production capacity in the United States is ongoing, which will not only provide full phase-by-phase transfer of Ukrainian technologies to the U.S. and exclude future dependence on foreign suppliers, but also create new work for the U.S. space industry.

Yuzhnoye is ready to customize the GU250 engine to accommodate the requirements of launch vehicle manufacturers, and will not require significant launch vehicle changes to adapt to the Yuzhnoye engine. This will significantly reduce the nonrecurring costs for modification and adaptation of launch vehicle stages to this new engine.

The approach to GU250 engine development focuses on low development cost utilizing proven heritage technology and high reliability. Based on the application of existing engine technology, and utilizing existing U.S. suppliers for fabrication and assembly of the GU250, the engine price will be significantly lower than competitors’ pricing.

Yuzhnoye has already begun to identify industry partners and suppliers in the United States that would participate in fabrication, assembly and test. Yuzhnoye has a focused strategy for establishing a permanent presence there ensuring the implementation of this technology in the U.S. industrial base.

For the Atlas 5 application, the GU250 engine is essentially a “plug and play” solution offering minimal launch vehicle changes and recertification and minimal launch infrastructure changes for processing the launch vehicle. The above-mentioned advantages of the GU250 engine are more promising in comparison with existing options. For Yuzhnoye, the difficult question is sufficient financial backing to ensure rapid progress. Discussions are ongoing between Yuzhnoye and representatives of U.S. industry and various U.S. government entities in order to advance this sound business and technical approach to replacing the RD-180.

Yuzhnoye is fluent in working with U.S. aerospace companies, is well postured to execute this approach and is open to partnering with U.S. entities that are interested in participating in this historically important project.

Yuzhnoye in Ukraine is perfectly positioned to leverage decades of expertise in LOX-rich staged combustion, together with a historically efficient design process and modern-day entrepreneurial business practices.

Mike Bowker is chief executive of United States Propulsion Group LLC, which has a strategic relationship with Yuzhnoye State Design Office for the marketing and U.S.-based production of Guardian engines. His email is [email protected] John Isella is a representative of the Yuzhnoye Design Office in the United States. His email is [email protected]