Air Force Already at Work on Plan To Cope with RD-180 Loss

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The U.S. Air Force is already taking steps to implement the near-term recommendations of a report on mitigating the loss of access to the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which powers the service’s Atlas 5 workhorse rocket, William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said June 13.

Among the report’s recommendations was to do the engineering work necessary to enable satellites designated for Atlas 5 launches to fly atop the Air Force’s other workhorse, the Delta 4. This would enable United Launch Alliance, builder of both vehicles, to reserve the Atlas 5 for missions that require its unique capabilities.

Those integration studies, LaPlante said, are “actually almost done.”

Russia has threatened to restrict U.S. use of the RD-180 engine to civilian missions only. ULA currently has 15 of those engines in the United States.

The report also suggests the Air Force and NASA set up a program office to manage risk of developing a new liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine.

LaPlante said the Air Force has not decided whether or how to develop the engine, even as Congress pursues funding for such a project. 

“It’s not saying we’re going to do it,” he said. “I don’t think we know enough yet. But it’s not taken off the table. There’s a lot of strong views there.”

LaPlante said there were several “very interesting concepts” for an engine and that he would not limit the options to a hydrocarbon engine, meaning one fueled by methane or kerosene.