WASHINGTON — NASA’s plan to devote significant funding beginning next year to develop a new main-stage rocket engine following the cancellation of the agency’s Ares 1 and Ares 5 launcher programs is in line with what some industry officials have called for in recent months as a way to maintain U.S. core competencies in propulsion.

The U.S. space agency is considering using some of the $3.1 billion it is requesting for heavy-lift and in-space propulsion research over the next five years to develop a U.S. counterpart to the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, according to budget documents released Feb. 22. While NASA announced Feb. 1 that its 2011 budget proposal included nearly $560 million next year for a heavy-lift and propulsion technology research-and-development program, agency officials provided few details on how they intend to spend the money.

The more-recent documents say NASA’s first-stage launch propulsion work “will focus on development of a U.S. core stage hydrocarbon engine,” adding that “a strong candidate” would be a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine “capable of generating high levels of thrust approximately equal to or exceeding the performance of the Russian-built RD-180 engine.”

NASA and the Pentagon routinely use the Atlas 5 to launch high-value satellites. The rocket’s RD-180 engine, built by NPO Energomash of Khimki, Russia, burns a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen and is capable of producing roughly 860,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.

NASA says it intends to put enough money into first-stage propulsion development to produce “a fully operational engine” by 2020, or sooner if it can establish a partnership with the U.S. Defense Department.

In an interview the week before the president’s budget went to Congress, Jim Maser, president of rocket engine maker Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne of Canoga Park, Calif., said there was a growing consensus that the U.S. government’s next major propulsion development project should be a powerful hydrocarbon main-stage engine of the sort now being considered by NASA.

“To maintain the nation’s critical capabilities, you need a significant development probably every 10 years or so,” Maser said Jan. 27. “So one of the things we’ve been starting to talk about is maybe once you get down the road on [the J-2X], maybe the next step is a domestic [liquid oxygen]/kerosene booster. … I think the nation needs something like that, and it would be a shame to not have enough vision to put that into your planning.”

Maser’s comments were made several days before NASA announced its intention to cancel the Moon-focused Constellation program and halt development of the Ares 1 and Ares 5, both of which would use J-2X upper-stage engines built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. The J-2X is designed to burn a mixture of liquid oxygen and hydrogen and traces its design heritage to the engine used on the second stage of NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn 5 rocket.

Development of a new kerosene-fueled engine also has been endorsed by David W. Thompson, chief executive of Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. In a Jan. 12 interview, Thompson said Sacramento, Calif.-based Aerojet has a sufficient inventory of Russian-built AJ-26 kerosene-fueled main engines to support the projected flight rate of Orbital’s planned Taurus 2 medium-lift rocket for four or five years.

“But I think at some point it sure would be advantageous to the U.S. launch industry and the U.S. propulsion sector if we could develop a new booster engine in the million-pound-thrust class that could somehow be modular enough that it could support both Taurus 2 and Atlas 5,” Thompson said. “I know the Air Force has a study under way looking at things like this.”

In a written response to Space News questions, Emily Shanklin, a spokeswoman for rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., said: “SpaceX supports any efforts by NASA and the DoD to eliminate reliance on foreign suppliers of key national security technologies such as rocket propulsion and launch services. The US is about to be 100% reliant on foreign launch services to access the International Space Station and over half of our national security satellites are already launched into space on vehicles that rely on foreign propulsion systems.”

Gil Klinger, director of the Space and Intelligence Office for the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the industrial base implications of canceling NASA’s Constellation program are likely to “evolve over time.”

“There’s no question that with … the termination of shuttle operations and the cancellation of Constellation … there’s going to have to be a fairly significant adjustment both in solid-rocket motor production area as well as in liquid propulsion,” Klinger said during a Feb. 23 Space Newswebcast. “We do have the [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] production ongoing, which will help stabilize the industrial base, as well as a number of new entrants — most notably SpaceX, which is developing two new liquid-fired engines. But there’s no question there’s going to be more pressure on an industrial base that was already feeling some degree of heat.”

Klinger said the Obama administration is sensitive to the need to maintain a healthy U.S. propulsion industry. “And the good news is that NASA has, as I understand it, a significant amount of money in the president’s budget that has gone to the Hill for a propulsion program,” he said.

Noting that NASA and the Defense Department already cooperate on some propulsion projects, Klinger added: “We also need to take stock of where we are going in light of the changes that NASA is undergoing. We will be doing that with NASA and internally through the Air Force in the coming months.”

In addition to the first-stage engine work, NASA intends to devote an unspecified portion of the $3.1 billion budgeted for 2011 through 2015 to the development and in-space testing of new upper-stage engines, including a liquid-oxygen/methane engine and low-cost liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engines.

NASA’s budget proposal also includes $25 million a year for so-called foundational propulsion research focused on areas such as:

  • New or largely untested propellants.
  • Advanced propulsion and manufacturing techniques.
  • Combustion processes.
  • Engine health monitoring and safety.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...