WASHINGTON — A top U.S. defense official reiterated to a large group of California lawmakers that “now is the time” to study how to reduce the Pentagon’s dependence on a Russian-made rocket engine.

In September, 32 members of California’s congressional delegation asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to broaden competition in the U.S. national security launch program and to move away from the RD-180 rocket engine that powers the Atlas 5 rocket sooner rather than later. The Atlas 5 and Delta 4, both built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance, launch the vast majority of U.S. military payloads.

In an Oct. 17 response, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said the RD-180 has “provided both a cost-effective alternative to the Delta 4 launch vehicle and an essential diversity of supply.”

Nonetheless, Work also said, “We share your concern about dependency on unreliable sources.” 

“Secretary Hagel agrees that now is the time to investigate alternatives that would reduce our utilization of the RD-180 engine,” Work said.

The RD-180 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, threatened in May to ban exports of Russian-made rocket engines used to launch U.S. military satellites.

Pentagon and ULA officials say there has been no evidence of a slowdown in RD-180 deliveries, but both have begun preparing for a future without the engine. ULA has commissioned development of a new engine by the Blue Origin venture led by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, while the Air Force has solicited information from industry on future launch options, among other steps. 

In their letter, the California lawmakers members said they were “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.”

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which is seeking to break ULA’s virtual monopoly in the national security launch market, is headquartered in Hawthorne, California. Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has designed an engine that it says could replace the RD-180 within about five years, is located in Sacramento, California.

Work said the Defense Department is investigating “all possible methods of retaining assured access to space without a dependency on possibly unreliable sources.”

Heinrich Weighs in from N.M.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said Oct. 17 he continued to support efforts in Congress to fund development of an RD-180 replacement despite ULA’s plan to independently support Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine effort.

“I’m pleased that, in Congress, we’ve taken the steps to provide the initial funding needed in 2015 to begin risk reduction and develop that next-generation rocket engine, and I will continue to support those efforts,” said Heinrich, speaking at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, N.M.

Heinrich said he was not swayed by criticism of a planned RD-180 replacement, such as estimates of as many as seven years to develop a replacement. “I think these arguments only serve to prolong the inaction and delay a course of action that will eventually make us much more self-reliant,” he said.

Heinrich mentioned in his remarks the venture announced Sept. 17 by Blue Origin and ULA to develop the BE-4 engine, which ULA will use on a future launch vehicle, but did not suggest that the effort, which the companies are funding on their own, eliminated the need for the RD-180 replacement.

“We’re seeing a number of capable companies stepping up to these challenges, which is frankly great for our national security and great for our tax dollars,” he said of the BE-4 project.

In his speech, Heinrich also reiterated his support for the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program, which he has championed in Congress in recent years. ORS, he said, “can do things faster and more effectively, and do the job at a much lower cost with 70 percent of the capability” of more conventional systems. The ORS Office is based at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Heinrich said he continued to support legislation he introduced earlier this year that would allow a commercial suborbital vehicle operator to hold both an experimental permit and commercial launch license for the same vehicle. Under current law, the experimental permit expires when the launch license is issued, which has affected the testing program for Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane.

Heinrich’s bill, S. 2140, was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in April but has yet to be taken up by the full Senate or incorporated into a broader update of the Commercial Space Launch Act.

Twitter: @Gruss_SN
Email: mgruss@spacenews.com


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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...