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No US Commitment To Replace Russian RD-180 Rocket Engine, Yet

Posted by Colin Clark on


RD-180 engines on Atlas V

WASHINGTON: When the Air Force issued a Request for Information about an engine to replace the RD-180 it began to look as if they were serious about committing to build the first new rocket engine in decades.

But we also received two new RD-180 engines from Russia the same day as the RFI went out, the United Launch Alliance announced. That bolstered those who argue that Russia needs the revenue so much and is so committed to space cooperation that our sanctions against Russia to punish them for Ukraine will not stop the flow of the cheap, highly reliable engines. Three more engines are due to arrive this fall, and I’m betting they arrive.

Just to make sure the Air Force or OSD hadn’t snuck something past us, I checked to see if any policy decisions had been made or memos approved to allow spending for a new engine.

Here are the responses to my questions about whether a policy decision has been made to proceed with a new engine or to create a budget line to find one from Maj. Eric Badger, Air Force spokesman:

“No, there has not been a policy decision made to buy a new
engine.”

“No, the decision for a new budget line has not been made.”

The answer about the budget line is intriguing. It certainly seems to indicate that a new budget line is being discussed. As any acquisition aficionado knows, creation of a budget line is tantamount to authorizing a new program.

Another element in all this is last Friday’s detonation of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket during a failed test. While the cause is unknown and the rocket tested wouldn’t be the same as the one used by the Defense Department, the process of Air Force certification looks at all the processes, successes and failures of the rocket’s builder. Just-retired Air Force Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, made clear he supported building a new engine and hoped for more competition. But SpaceX must receive certification from the Air Force before it can compete for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The controlled destruction of the missile last Friday may not mean anything in the long run. We’ll have to see.

What do you think?