The United States has to make a choice. Notwithstanding the political gridlock hamstringing the country, it must be made soon, and it will have dramatic affects on the nation’s future. 

One path involves developing and building rockets and spacecraft at home. It could give the United States a future manufacturing vehicles that will explore and eventually industrialize the solar system. It could also employ many of the space shuttle engineers and managers now being forced out of their jobs.

The other path outsources that work. It would undoubtedly save money in the short term, but it also would result in the United States rapidly losing one of its last major heavy manufacturing industries, along with the associated high-paying jobs and economic activity. It would force the U.S. to depend on others to access the knowledge and resources of the solar system. More than half a century’s investment of many hundreds of billions of dollars would be lost. Many or most of the talented engineers and managers who have built the nation’s rocket industry would likely face permanent unemployment.

The choice has nothing to do with the current debate over government development of space transportation. That increasingly bitter and all-consuming dispute pits traditional Apollo or Constellation models of cost-plus government contracts against pay-for-demonstrated-milestone Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)-type subsidies of otherwise privately funded newcomers. Each involves different kinds of employment, in different locations, but either model can result in retaining and expanding the nation’s spacefaring skills and work force.

No matter which model is eventually chosen, the United States is on the verge of making the same mistakes the nation made with commercial sea-going ships, with rail equipment and increasingly with automobiles and aircraft. These are industries that are long gone, in sharp decline or under severe economic stress in the face of intense competition supported by governments that want these industries at any price.

To save money, the U.S. Department of Defense is considering allowing overseas contractors to bid on large military space projects. Through a different route — subcontracts on the COTS and Commercial Crew Development contracts — NASA is doing the same. Much of the high-value content of Orbital Sciences’ new Taurus 2 launch vehicle — engines, first stage and cargo module — are built overseas. The most-used U.S. medium-lift vehicle, the Atlas 5, uses Russian-made main engines. Only Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 is primarily a domestic-built vehicle.

On its face, this is good policy, saving the government money while providing needed capabilities. Crucially, however, the United States does not appear prepared to require that other nations open their markets to U.S. manufacturers in exchange.

This issue will come to a head if NASA selects the Liberty launch vehicle proposed by ATK and Europe’s Astrium for the second round of Commercial Crew Development subsidies. This vehicle is essentially a redesign of the Constellation Ares 1 and is attractive to some because it would quickly employ many former space shuttle engineers. It would pair five-segment solid-rocket boosters, derived from the shuttle’s four-segment boosters for use on the canceled Constellation project, with the European Ariane Vulcain 2 main engine powering a second stage. The Vulcain 2 would replace the Pratt & Whitney J-2X originally proposed for that mission. Liberty could lift 20,140 kilograms to low Earth orbit, versus an advertised Ares 1 payload of 25,400 kilograms.

Should NASA select Liberty, all but two of the large liquid rockets used by the United States — the Delta 4 RS-68 and the Falcon 9 Merlin — would be designed and/or manufactured by the United States’ competitors, including:

  • The Russian RD-180, built by NPO Energomash and used on the Atlas 5. It is a modification of the RD-170 rocket that powers Russia’s Zenit vehicle. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has the right to co-produce the engines, but has never made the investment needed to build them in the United States.
  • The Aerojet AJ-26, two of which are used on each Orbital Sciences Taurus 2 vehicle. The Taurus 2 was proposed to replace the old Delta 2 for science missions and is now being developed to deliver cargo to the international space station. The engine is a modification of the Russian NK-33 originally developed by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau for the Soviet N-1 Moon rocket and still considered one of the most advanced kerosene/liquid oxygen rocket engines in the world. According to an Aug. 31, 2009, report in Space News [page 4], some 37 leftover engines and the rights to others still in Russia were sold to Aerojet. Russia reportedly has some 150 NK-33s in storage. If a large number of Taurus 2s are sold or another use is found for the engine (Russia may be considering its use on an updated Soyuz launcher), it is possible that additional AJ-26s could someday be needed. Even in the event some of these are assembled in the United States, it would not be in time to employ the current generation of aerospace engineers retiring from the shuttle program.

If the Liberty were partially financed or purchased by the U.S. government, the Vulcain 2 would be added to this list. In that case, the J-2X project would presumably be dropped just as development is almost complete. This rocket is being adapted by NASA and Pratt & Whitney from the S4B third-stage engine of the Saturn 5, originally for use on the second stage of Constellation’s Ares 1 and the Earth Departure Stage of the Ares 5.

The J-2X and Vulcain are comparable engines. The J-2X’s thrust is advertised as 1,308 kiloNewtons compared with the Vulcain 2’s 1,359 kN. While nominally less pow

erful, J-2X is substantially more efficient, with a specific impulse of 448 seconds in vacuum, versus 429 seconds for the Vulcain 2. Flight J-2X engines are rated for one restart, but they are capable of up to eight.

The Vulcain will need modification to use as a second-stage engine, so in spite of its long flight history, it cannot be said to be substantially more ready than the J-2X. Jennifer Stanfield, a public affairs specialist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., told me in an April 11 email, “The first J-2X off the production line is currently under assembly at [Pratt & Whitney’s] facility located at Stennis Space Center. We anticipate engine assembly to be complete next month and to begin testing [at that time]. Testing will continue for several months culminating with full duration hot-fires later this summer.”

The J-2X and a Vulcain 2 optimized for a high-altitude start would be in more-or-less direct competition. With a Liberty/Ares 1 powered by a European engine, the United States’ propulsion industry, already under severe stress from too few development and production programs, would be subject to even greater loss of market share. The industry would probably consolidate to one major contractor — possibly Aerojet, but more likely the larger Pratt & Whitney — removing competition from the domestic industry.

To be clear, free trade in launch vehicles would be a boon to all. However, for free trade to work, everyone needs to play. The United States should not provide a market for major European or Russian components until these nations are prepared to let U.S. companies compete for comparable components of the Ariane 6, future upgrades to Russia’s new Angara rockets and other government-funded follow-on vehicles.

Such arrangements are unlikely to be forthcoming. If not, NASA and the Department of Defense need to determine that major European or Russian components are not allowed in U.S. launch vehicles funded in whole or in part by the U.S. government — whether they are developed with the Constellation model or via COTS-like subsidies.

If the United States continues down its present path of outsourcing major large rocket components without the opportunity to sell to others, soon there will be little domestic space launch industry — and few jobs.


Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. For further examples of his work, see

Donald F. Robertson is a retired space industry journalist and technical writer based in San Francisco.