Atlas 5 rocket cores

THULE AIR FORCE BASE, Greenland — The U.S. Air Force is initiating an extensive review of nearly every element of its launch activities for 2017 and beyond, including the feasibility of U.S. production of the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine and scrapping the service’s involvement in developing dual-launch capabilities. 

The study, expected to start in several weeks, is one of several exercises led by Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, that are intended to help shape the future of the service’s space portfolio. In an interview with SpaceNews en route to Thule Air Base Jan. 27, he described the launch study as one of his major initiatives for 2014. 

The key, he said, is to find the right contracting strategy for space launches in future years. 

“We have to be mindful of the whole gamut of capability. We’re trying to drive to smaller and smaller satellites but we’ll still have heavy satellites come out of the National Reconnaissance Office. We may have some heavy satellites of our own,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to go down to heavy to a medium class and maybe even a small class in national security payloads in the future. Covering that entire spectrum and having that right strategy in place, and I’m really talking contracting strategy here, is going to be key for where we’re headed.”

For nearly a decade, United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, has had a virtual monopoly on the national security launch market with its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. But the Air Force plans to introduce competition in the coming years, giving new entrants like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a shot. 

The study also will examine the Atlas 5’s RD-180 main engine, built by NPO Energomash in the Moscow region and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between the Russian manufacturer and United Technologies Corp. Although ULA says it has a solid stockpile of RD-180s, reliance on Russian engines for national security launch has long been a simmering concern, one that heated up last year amid reports that the Russian government was mulling a ban on their export to the United States.

“We believe that they’re going to produce RD-180s and sell them to us so we’re not really concerned,” Shelton said.

In November, however, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) introduced a bill calling for an estimate of the costs of manufacturing an alternative to the Russian-made RD-180 engine in the United States. 

The bill also asked for an estimate of the savings that a U.S. engine would provide during the life of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, on which Denver-based ULA is prime contractor.

“If Atlas is going to be the workhorse for us forever, do you want to continue to buy RD-180s forever?” Shelton said. “Do you want to look at co-production here in the United States, something along those lines?”

Bill Parsons, president and chief executive of RD-Amross of West Palm Beach, Fla., told SpaceNews in October that while the company likes the idea of building the RD-180 in the United States — RD-Amross has all the designs for the engine — doing so could increase its cost by as much as 50 percent. 

Shelton was skeptical. 

“I think there’s certainly people have their own motivations for making those kind of statements,” Shelton said. “Do we want to insulate ourselves from future concerns about reliability of delivery of RD-180s? That is a true national security question.”

Derived from the giant Soviet-era RD-170 engine, the kerosene-fueled RD-180 was developed during the 1990s for Lockheed Martin’s commercial Atlas 3 rocket, which morphed into the Atlas 5 under the EELV program. 

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.

The launch study also will re-examine Air Force plans to develop the capability to launch two satellites on the same rocket, known as dual launch.  Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, prime contractor on the next-generation GPS 3 navigation satellites, and ULA have worked to develop such a capability for the Atlas 5, and Lockheed executives have said dual launches could save as much as $50 million per satellite. Plans had called for dual launches beginning with the ninth GPS 3 satellite. 

Congress appropriated $20 million in 2014 for the Air Force’s EELV engineering, manufacturing and development account, which funds the dual-launch development activity. 

But Shelton said the service now is disinclined to continue supporting that effort after potential bidders for the GPS 3 launches complained that the dual-launch funding could tip the scales in ULA’s favor.

“We got some fairly serious concern from new entrants that dual launch was a way of shutting them out of GPS launches. And I hadn’t even thought about that until they brought it up,” Shelton said. “So what we’re looking at is dual launch really the way we want to go? Does the government want to fund dual launch? Certainly ULA can pursue dual launch if they want to do that with internal money. “

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Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...