Alan Estevez (left) and Gen. William Shelton said the Air Force does not yet know the best route to develop an engine. Credit: U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services image
Alan Estevez (left) and Gen. William Shelton said the Air Force does not yet know the best route to develop an engine. Credit: U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services image

WASHINGTON — The White House is asking Congress for $40 million next year to begin developing technologies for new, main-stage rocket engine that would be manufactured in the United States.

The proposed amendment to the 2015 defense budget request, originally submitted in February, was disclosed by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) July 16 during a hearing on U.S. space launch capabilities. U.S. government and other witnesses agreed during the hearing that developing a U.S. rocket engine is a priority, but were unable to map out a clear path forward.

“We want to do this right,” said Alan Estevez, principal deputy to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

The unusual joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services, and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees, which oversee the Pentagon and NASA, respectively, focused mainly on the engine issue, which has come to the fore in recent months due to questions about the long-term availability of the Russian-built powerplant for one of the two primary rockets in the U.S. fleet. The Russian RD-180 engine powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, which launches nearly all U.S. civilian science and weather satellites and, together with the company’s Delta 4, virtually all national security missions.

The Obama administration’s position on the new engine, while supportive, appears to be more cautious than that of the House, which in June passed a defense spending bill that provides $220 million next year for a crash program to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine. In reaction to the bill, the White House said it opposes the expenditure, arguing that new engine would take eight years to develop at a cost of $1.5 billion, and require another $3 billion investment in a new rocket to go with it.

The administration instead advocated studying “several cost-effective options” for reducing U.S. reliance on Russian engine technology, including “multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition.”

In the recently submitted amendment to its budget request, the Defense Department said the $40 million would be used for activities to include modeling and simulation of the combustion chamber, and technology development and maturation for key engine components.

The Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, for its part, has drafted a Pentagon spending bill that includes just $25 million for engine development.

During the hearing, government witnesses said a new engine could take five to eight years and cost $2 billion to develop.

Sessions called the timeline “unacceptable” and said he was hoping for a quicker solution.

Estevez and Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the Air Force does not yet know the best route to developing an engine. The Air Force is studying the question and hopes to have some answers by September, they said.

Mitch Mitchell, vice president of program assessments at the Aerospace Corp., who led a high-profile report on RD-180 risk mitigation strategies for the Defense Department, said no single company currently has all the answers. “That’s going to take some time,” he said.

Shelton and other panel members laid out a worst-case scenario in which Russia’s leadership refused to sell any more RD-180 engines to the United States. That could delay missions by 12-48 months, cost more than $1.5 billion and put some of the Air Force’s satellite constellations at risk.

“It is dire if that should happen,” Shelton said.

While many national security satellites currently slated for Atlas 5 launches could be moved to the Delta 4, remanifesting would come at a significant cost.

Shelton and Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, stressed, however, they had not seen any indications of a production slowdown on RD-180 engines, which today are used exclusively on the Atlas 5.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket, which is undergoing certification to carry U.S. military satellites, cannot launch seven of the 10 types of missions the Atlas 5 currently flies, Shelton said. He did not specify how often the Atlas 5 flies in these unique mission configurations.

If all goes smoothly, Shelton said, SpaceX, which is seeking to break ULA’s stranglehold the U.S. national security launch market, could earn certification as early as December 2014. The Air Force is reviewing data from three recent SpaceX flights that were required as part of the certification process.

However, Shelton said there have already been disagreements between SpaceX and the service on three of the engineering review boards the two sides have completed. Sixteen more review boards remain, he said.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.