WASHINGTON — While Congress has worked in recent weeks to secure development money next year for a new American-made rocket engine, the White House said such a move is premature and would not reduce U.S. reliance on Russian technology.

In a June 17 statement of administration policy, the White House took issue with the 2015 defense spending bill drafted by a House panel, which sets aside $220 million for the engine. The measure reflects growing doubts about the future availability of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers the Atlas 5 rocket, a key U.S. government workhorse.

“This approach prematurely commits significant resources and would not reduce our reliance on Russian engines for at least a decade,” the White House said. 

The White House said the development program could cost $4.5 billion and take eight years, figures that contrast markedly with congressional and industry estimates that put the cost and time at about $1 billion and four years, respectively. 

As an alternative, the White House suggested evaluating “several cost-effective options” including “multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition.” The statement did not specify what those options were.

The statement came just one day after Atlas 5 manufacturer United Launch Alliance announced it had signed “multiple” contracts with unidentified companies to study potential replacements for the RD-180, and hopes to select a single concept for development this year.

Following up in a June 18 meeting with reporters here, ULA Chief Executive Michael Gass characterized the value of the contracts as in the single millions of dollars.

The selected companies will study the technical feasibility of hydrocarbon-fueled engine concepts, and lay out schedules along with cost estimates and technical risks, Gass said. ULA hopes to select a supplier by the fourth quarter of this year, with a first launch targeted for 2019, but only if the business case for such an engine makes sense, he said.

In the press release announcing the contracts, Gass said, “We believe now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine.”

Who Wants To Build an American Rocket Engine

The RD-180 is built by NPO Energomash of Russia and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies Corp. ULA currently has 15 of the engines in its inventory, but Gass said the company is working to accelerate the production and delivery of new engines under its current contract with RD-Amross. 

ULA will receive two engines in August and three in September, Gass said, noting that all five engines were originally expected to arrive in November. Additionally, ULA will receive eight engines next year, instead of the previously planned six. 

Gass said the accelerated delivery rate means ULA and RD-Amross will reach the end of their current contract one year earlier than expected.  

The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, says it has begun taking steps to preserve the Atlas 5 for those missions that can take advantage of its unique capabilities. The single-core version of the Atlas 5 is more powerful than that of ULA’s other workhorse, the Delta 4, meaning it can handle some of the larger Defense Department satellites that otherwise would require the triple-core — and very expensive — Delta 4 Heavy.

ULA is also boosting production of the Delta 4, Gass said.

A recent report by an expert U.S. panel said the consequences of losing access to the RD-180 would be significant and urged the Air Force to begin work on a U.S. alternative. “Regardless of RD-180 viability, U.S. needs to develop a domestic engine,” the report said.

A pair of defense bills in the House have recommended spending $220 million next year to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine that would debut in 2022. A bill in the Senate authorizes up to $100 million for that activity and says the engine should be ready by no later than 2019.

In a statement, George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of advanced programs, said the company had a “number of very promising alternatives” to choose from. Sowers, previously the chief systems engineer for the Atlas 5, will lead the effort to examine these alternatives. 

ULA said it would continue to work with RD-Amross on the long-term viability of the RD-180 in competition with the new engine. ULA raised the possibility of funding a new engine either privately or through a public-private partnership.

The pool of likely U.S. engine suppliers to ULA is a small one. At the top of the list is Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, which is the dominant U.S. supplier of large liquid-fueled rocket engines. Aerojet Rocketdyne is pushing a kerosene-fueled, 500,000-pound-thrust concept dubbed AR-1, which the company says could be fully developed in four years for less than $1 billion.  

ULA has also worked with XCOR Aerospace on engine development.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. builds liquid-fueled engines in house for its Falcon 9 rocket, but that company’s relations with ULA are highly antagonistic as the two square off for future Air Force business. Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX has filed a federal lawsuit to block the Air Force’s planned purchase of a large batch of rockets from ULA on a sole-source basis.

Amid those tensions, Gass said ULA is kicking off a new advertising campaign that stresses “Results over rhetoric.” Gass said that while ULA previously was content as a behind-the-scenes contractor, the SpaceX lawsuit, which he described as “baseless,” has exposed a string of misinformation about the company. He also stressed several times that ULA is the only company certified by the Air Force to launch national security satellites.

“SpaceX is trying to cut corners and just wants the U.S. Air Force to rubber-stamp it,” Gass said. “We obviously believe that’s a dangerous approach, and thankfully, so do most people.”

In a June 19 email, SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said ULA has cost taxpayers billions of dollars by relying on Russian engines.

“In ULA’s case, it would rather call a press conference to announce an inside-the-Beltway lobbying campaign aimed at distracting lawmakers from the benefits competition brings to the marketplace: better technology, improved reliability and affordable prices,” he said. “The truth is ULA is wholly reliant upon its Russian business partner and in doing so, it has cost the U.S. taxpayers billions and jeopardized the country’s national security.”

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

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...