WASHINGTON — NASA is considering using some of the $3.1 billion it is requesting for heavy-lift and in-space propulsion research to develop a U.S. counterpart to the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, according to new budget documents the U.S. space agency 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, NASA officials provided few details on how it intends to spend the money, expected to total $3.1 billion over five years.

Newly posted budget documents say NASA’s planned 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 rocket to launch high-value satellites. The rocket’s liquid RD-180 engine, built by NPO Energomash, burns a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen and is capable of producing 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 possibly sooner if it can establish a partnership with the U.S. Defense Department.

In addition to the first-stage engine work, NASA also 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 and 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.

Under NASA’s 2011 budget proposal, the Heavy Lift and Propulsion Technology program would replace development of the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket that has been slated for termination along with the rest of the Moon-bound Constellation program.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is scheduled to testify on the agency’s $19 billion budget request during hearings before the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee Feb. 24 and the House Science and Technology Committee Feb. 25.