Aerojet Rocketdyne Exec Pitches Long-brewing Concept as RD-180 Replacement

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — An executive with the leading U.S. supplier of liquid-fueled rocket engines said a 500,000-pound-thrust hydrocarbon boost engine the company has been developing for years under U.S. Air Force and NASA technology demonstration contracts is the alternative to the Russian-built RD-180 that Congress is looking for. 

The concept, which delivers only about half the thrust of the RD-180 engine, is “an all-American design,” Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of space launch systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said in a May 22 interview here. 

The long-simmering idea of developing a new U.S. liquid-fueled rocket engine has gained momentum recently following Russian threats to ban the use of the RD-180, the main engine for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, for military missions. The House recently approved a bill authorizing the Pentagon to spend $220 million next year on the effort, while a counterpart bill drafted in the Senate recommends $100 million.

Both versions of the defense authorization bill would require that the new engine become available by 2019.

“We think we can have flying engines by 2019,” Van Kleeck said. “We’ve got plans laid out that show that can be done in four years.”

But Van Kleeck acknowledged that producing a flight-ready engine with the same closed-loop, kerosene-burning characteristics that give the RD-180 its power off the pad in just four years will take vastly more money than Aerojet Rocketdyne has received so far from the government. 

In 2006, the company was awarded a nine-year contract worth $110 million by the Air Force Research Laboratory for preliminary work on an advanced hydrocarbon boost engine. The term hydrocarbon boost typically refers to engines fueled by liquid kerosene or methane, as opposed to liquid hydrogen.  

Work Aerojet Rocketdyne has done under a NASA contract awarded in 2013 also is applicable to the engine, Van Kleeck said. That agreement, covering risk reduction work for future elements of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System, expires in August 2015 and is worth roughly $23 million.

“I think there’s a lot of desire for this,” Van Kleeck said. “What is more difficult is where does the money come from, and how does it get acquired?”

Congress appears to be looking to the Defense Department to foot the $1 billion-plus bill to develop a new engine. But a new report by a blue-ribbon panel on mitigating the loss of the RD-180 recommended that NASA participate as well. 

Industry sources have said NASA has expressed reservations about taking on that role, but the agency has not confirmed this. “We’ve been providing input and information to the U.S. Air Force for its study, and discussions are ongoing,” NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said in response to SpaceNews inquiries. 

A new liquid-fueled rocket engine does not figure into the Space Launch System development effort. NASA is spending close to $2 billion a year on the rocket, which would utilize large solid-rocket boosters similar to those used on the now-retired space shuttle along with variants of the liquid-hydrogen-fueled RS-25, which served as the main engine on the retired space shuttle.

NASA was laying out plans to develop a new kerosene-fueled engine capable of generating 1 million pounds of thrust before Congress directed the agency to develop the Space Launch System and its companion crew capsule, Orion. The yearly bill for the rocket and spacecraft is around $3 billion.

 

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