Atlas 5 rocket cores

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department “strongly disagrees” with congressional proposals to initiate a large, government-run program to replace a controversial Russian-made rocket engine that currently is used to launch national security missions, according to Pentagon correspondence obtained by SpaceNews.

While Defense Department leaders have stressed the need to wean the agency from dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 engine used on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, the new correspondence, which appeals provisions in pending defense legislation, clearly favors alternatives to a major government-funded development effort.

“The Department firmly believes that it should not allocate resources to develop yet another engine that would fail to be integrated into a viable launcher, especially when it can meet the assured access to space requirement with existing privately funded vehicle families,” the Pentagon’s legislative affairs office said in a 30-page packet of conference appeals. “It is nearly impossible to develop a stand-alone rocket engine that can meet the needs of more than a single launch vehicle, or without extensive changes to even that single vehicle.”

Earlier this year, the House drafted defense appropriations and authorization bills that recommended spending $220 million in fiscal year 2015 to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine that would debut in 2022. The defense appropriations and authorization bills drafted in the Senate propose spending $25 million and $100 million, respectively, on the effort next year.

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the bills are worked out in conferences of senior lawmakers before the measures are sent to the White House to be signed into law. 

The push for a new U.S. rocket engine has been fueled in large part by concerns about the future availability of the RD-180 as U.S. tensions with Russia escalate over the crisis in Ukraine. The Atlas 5 is used, along with ULA’s Delta 4 rocket, to launch the lion’s share of U.S. national security, weather and scientific satellites.

But despite congressional interest, congressional and industry sources say the engine development program is likely to receive less than $100 million in the final 2015 appropriations bill. A more realistic number, these sources say, is something closer to the $40 million suggested by the White House in June.

Denver-based ULA says it has seen no slowdown in RD-180 deliveries from Russia but is nonetheless funding, on its own, a new engine development effort led by Blue Origin, the secretive rocket company led by founder Jeff Bezos. ULA is also funding a smaller-scale effort by longtime supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne to examine propulsion concepts that include a kerosene-fueled main engine dubbed AR-1. Meanwhile, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, is awaiting U.S. Air Force certification of its Falcon 9 rocket to carry national security payloads.

“Launch service providers and engine manufacturers are teaming up to develop an additional domestic engine with private funding,” the Pentagon said in its legislative appeal. “These factors enable solutions that do not delay the launch of critical national security space satellites, enables competition, and will be more cost-effective in the long-term to meet national security space launch requirements.”

The appeal also noted that the Air Force currently has two certified launchers at its disposal — presumably meaning the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 — and “expects to soon certify a new entrant.” Air Force officials have targeted December for completing the Falcon 9 certification process.

Meanwhile, in a separate single-page appeal, the Defense Department said it “strongly objects” to a provision in the Senate version of the defense authorization bill that ultimately would ban the use of Russian-built engines in launching U.S. national security satellites.

That language, known as Sec. 1623 and inserted into the bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), specifically bars the Pentagon from signing new contracts or renewing existing contracts with launch companies that rely on Russian suppliers.

In the appeal, the Defense Department asked lawmakers to strike the language from the bill.

Twitter: @Gruss_SN



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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...