COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Losing access to the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas 5 rocket would have a “significant impact” on the U.S. military space program, and options for softening the blow are limited, according to a new Pentagon study.
In a summary of the so-called Mitchell Report, obtained by SpaceNews and ordered by the U.S. Defense Department, a committee of space experts paints a bleak outlook for the American launch landscape without the RD-180 engine. The committee was led by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell, vice president of the Aerospace Corp. Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator, was the committee’s deputy chairman. Defense officials were briefed on the report earlier this month.
The committee found that losing the RD-180, and thus at least temporarily grounding Atlas 5, would delay as many as 31 missions, costing the United States as much as $5 billion. It would also have a major effect on a long-planned Air Force competition for national security launch contracts.
The report recommends accelerating the current schedule of RD-180 purchases but avoiding U.S. co-production of the RD-180 engine.
“Actions must be taken in [fiscal year 2014] to mitigate current risk and preserve future options,” the summary reads.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the country’s space sector, said May 13 he would ban exports of Russian-made rocket engines used to launch U.S. military satellites. U.S. space leaders have not yet seen any evidence of the ban.
A complete RD-180 export ban would eventually ground United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of the U.S. military’s two main satellite launchers. The engine is built by NPO Energomash of Russia and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies Corp.
The report says 38 Atlas 5 missions are on the manifest, but United Launch Alliance and RD-Amross have only 16 RD-180 engines on hand. That number is expected to shrink to 15 on May 22 with the launch of a National Reconnaissance mission.
In a best-case scenario, the loss of the RD-180 would mean delaying nine missions for an average of two years, costing taxpayers about $2.5 billion.
In a worst-case scenario, as many as 31 missions would be delayed for an average of 3.5 years and cost $5 billion, the report said.
The committee also suggested that an American-made version of the RD-180 “does not improve the situation” and that ULA cannot ramp up the production of its Delta 4 rocket to avoid delays. The report echoes a point made by Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, at the Space Symposium May 20 that it does not make sense to build a domestic alternative to the RD-180 engine that uses the Russian design.
“Regardless of RD-180 viability, U.S. needs to develop a domestic engine,” the report said.
Specifically, the report suggests the Air Force and NASA set up a program office to manage risk for a new liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine. The committee calls for full funding of the program in 2016 for a next-generation launch vehicle that minimizes dependence on foreign components. That engine could be available by 2022.
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