Atlas 5 rocket cores

WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee, following the lead of authorization legislation already approved on the House floor, calls for the U.S. Defense Department to spend $220 million next year to develop an American alternative to the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

The committee also provides the funding necessary to continue buying GPS 3 navigation satellites at a rate of two per year, whereas the U.S. Air Force was hoping to bring that rate down to one per year for 2015.

The committee approved the bill June 10.

According to a copy of the report accompanying the legislation, the new engine should be ready to make a first flight by 2022. 

“The Committee believes that the United States should rely on domestically manufactured launch vehicles as the foundation for access to space and is concerned about the reliance of some national security space launches on rocket engines produced in Russia,” the report says.

The full House of Representatives approved similar language on a slightly faster time line in its version of the national defense authorization bill in May.

The appropriations bill also requires the defense secretary to submit a report on “a risk reduction and development plan for a next-generation liquid rocket engine program.” 

A recent report on mitigating a loss of access to the RD-180, prepared for the Air Force by a blue-ribbon panel led by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell, made a similar recommendation. 

Momentum for developing a large liquid-fueled rocket engine in the United States has been building rapidly in Congress and elsewhere since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued threat to the rest of eastern Ukraine. The RD-180-powered Atlas 5 is one of the Pentagon’s two main satellite-launching workhorses, but a top Russian government official has threatened to bar the use of Russian-made engines for launches of U.S. national security satellites.

The subcommittee’s draft report also calls for an additional $30 million for the Air Force to continue buying long-lead parts for two positioning, navigation and timing satellites each year. 

The Air Force had planned on slowing its procurement of GPS 3 navigation satellites beginning in the 2015 budget year, primarily because earlier-generation GPS satellites are lasting longer in orbit than expected, service officials have said.  

“GPS III is an acquisition program based on efficiencies gained through larger, predictable buys with insertion of evolutionary capability improvements,” the report says. “However, the budget request reduces funding for future acquisitions to one satellite per year, increasing the overall life-cycle cost of the program.”

Currently Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver is under contract to build eight GPS 3 satellites, which are designed to be more accurate and less vulnerable to enemy jamming than previous generations of GPS craft.

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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...