Atlas 5 rocket cores

WASHINGTON — A large, bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers from California has asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to broaden competition in its national security launch program and to move away from a Russian-made rocket engine sooner rather than later. The U.S. Air Force in August asked American industry to propose ideas for doing just that.

“While it is important that we invest in new technology, the problem of Russian reliance calls for an immediate solution,” states the Sept. 22 letter, which was signed by 32 of California’s 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives.

At issue is the RD-180 engine used to power the first stage of Denver-based United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of the U.S. military’s two main satellite launchers. The engine is built by NPO Energomash of Russia and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies Corp.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the country’s space sector, said in May he would ban exports of Russian-made rocket engines used to launch U.S. military satellites, but U.S. space leaders have not yet seen any evidence of the ban.

In the letter, the House members said they are “troubled by the Department’s willingness to continue sourcing this engine from the Russian government, apparently in the hope that the situation with Russia does not deteriorate further, and that Russia chooses to continue supporting U.S. military launches — while it ignores American sources of engine technology.

“We strongly encourage you to recognize that the United States — and specifically, California — today produces technology that exceeds any capability offered by Russian systems,” the letter said. “It is time for the Department to look to these existing U.S. engine manufacturers and launch vehicle providers.”

As part of its plan to reduce its satellite launching costs while mollifying critics of ULA’s national security launch monopoly, the Air Force ordered a large batch of rockets on a sole-source basis from the incumbent while setting aside an additional seven to eight missions for competition

Launch services provider Space Exploration Technologies Corp. is based in Hawthorne, California, and has filed a federal lawsuit to block the Air Force’s planned purchase of those rockets.

Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, which is the dominant U.S. supplier of large liquid-fueled rocket engines, has suggested a kerosene-fueled, 500,000-pound-thrust concept dubbed AR-1 to the Air Force for a potential RD-180 replacement. The company has said the engine could be fully developed in four years for less than $1 billion.

ULA, however, announced Sept. 17 that it is investing in Blue Origin’s BE-4 liquid natural gas-fueled engine as an RD-180 replacement that could be ready to fly by 2019. Blue Origin is based in Kent, Washington, and tests its engines in Texas.

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.