Hearing on U.S. Space Launch Strategy Could Get Testy

by and

WASHINGTON – The chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee on June 22 set the stage for a scheduled June 26 hearing on national security space launch by declaring that Congress meant it when it directed the U.S. Air Force to end its reliance on Russian rocket engines by 2019.

“It is not the time to fund new launch vehicles, or new infrastructure, or rely on unproven technologies,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in a press release announcing the hearing.  “It is the time for the Pentagon to harness the power of the American industrial base, and move with purpose and clarity in order to swiftly develop an American rocket propulsion system that ends our reliance on Russia as soon as possible.”

The hearing, the panel’s second on the topic in four months, will focus on U.S. efforts to end reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers the U.S. military’s main workhorse, the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. Congress late last year ordered the Air Force to immediately begin working on an American-built replacement engine and appropriated $225 million for the effort.

“I will not allow the resources Congress has made available for this purpose to be wasted or misused,” Rogers said.

The Air Force and White House agree that the liquid-oxygen/kerosene-fueled RD-180 should be phased but disagree with Congress on the one-for-one replacement approach, instead advocating broader program of investment in various launch vehicle technologies. Denver-based ULA, meanwhile, is pursuing an Atlas 5 replacement vehicle featuring a methane-fueled engine built and funded by rocket venture Blue Origin.

Rogers’ statement appears to be a shot across the bow not only of the Air Force but also of ULA, whose main rocket making facility is in Decatur, Alabama. Some industry experts view ULA’s strategy as risky and believe the surest and quickest way to wean the Air Force off the RD-180 is to immediately begin developing a replacement that, unlike Blue Origin’s BE-4, can plug into the aft end of the Atlas 5.

The upcoming hearing, entitled “Assuring National Security Space: Investing in American Industry to End Reliance on Russian Rocket Engines,” will feature a panel of government witnesses followed by one from industry.

The government panel will include: Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command; Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which acquires space hardware; Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of defense for acquisition; and Mike Griffin, the former NASA administrator who co-authored a study last year that advocated replacing the RD-180 as soon as feasible.

The industry panel will include Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA; Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin; Julie Van Kleek, vice president of advanced systems and launch programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is developing the LOX/kerosene-fuled AR1 that could replace the RD-180 on the Atlas 5; Jeff Thornburg, senior director of propulsion engineering at SpaceX, ULA’s new competitor in the national security launch market; and Frank Culberson, president of the space systems group at Orbital ATK.