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A U.S. Air Force competition to develop a rocket propulsion system to end dependence on Russian rocket engines drew broad response from companies, the Air Force said on Friday. "There is interest," Lt. General Samuel Greaves, who heads the Air Force’s Space and Missiles Systems Center, said during a webcast hearing of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee. Russia's RD-180 engines power the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rockets that fly most of the military’s satellites. The Air Force hopes for at least two public-private partnerships to end reliance on those engines. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing.
Congress has banned imports of the RD-180 as part of trade sanctions against Russia for its involvement in Ukraine. "We do not have the capability within the United States today to replace (the RD-180) engine, so whatever we come up with will be a new engine," Greaves said. The Air Force intends to divide $160 million in seed funds among four companies before the end of 2015. After 12- to 18-month study contracts, two systems would be selected for development. Initial proposals were submitted this week.
Part of the military’s space launch conundrum could be resolved by the certification last month of privately owned SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. About 60 percent of the military’s satellites are the right size and mass to fly on Falcon 9, with a heavier lift Falcon that could handle the full lineup of military spacecraft expected to debut this year, SpaceX Senior Director Jeff Thornburg said. SpaceX, owned and operated by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, already are working on methane-fueled rocket engines.
The Air Force’s solicitation also brought proposals from AeroJet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc, which is working on an Atlas 5 engine replacement called the AR1, and from Orbital ATK, which is proposing solid-fuel and liquid propulsion systems, the companies said. Estimates to replace the Atlas rocket engine range from $200 million for an AR1 to $800 million for Blue Origin’s BE-4, ULA President and Chief Executive Tory Bruno said.