The Air Force is requesting information from industry about the possibility of a domestically-produced next-generation rocket engine for national security space launches, according to a notice posted on Federal Business Opportunities (FBO).

The Air Force said Wednesday it is open to a range of possible options including, but not limited to: a replacement engine with similar performance characteristics to currently used engines, alternative configurations that would provide similar performance characteristics to currently used engines, alternative configurations that would provide similar performance (such as a multiple engine configuration) to existing military-launch systems and the use of alternative launch systems for military-class systems.

ULA's Atlas V launch vehicle uses the Russian made RD-180. Photo: ULA.
ULA’s Atlas V launch vehicle uses the Russian made RD-180. Photo: ULA.

The Air Force’s launch program is known as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). It mostly relies on the Atlas V launch vehicle, which is powered by the Russian-developed RD-180 first stage engine. The service earlier this year tabled a blue-ribbon panel to explore its options for launch capability if it were to lose access to the RD-180 due to tensions between the United States and Russia over Crimea. Lawmakers have also pushed the Air Force to move away from relying on a foreign component for such a critical national security capability.

The Air Force said in the request for information (RFI) it is especially interested in exploiting any available synergies with commercial space launch systems. The service is also “highly interested” in business opportunities for public-private ventures and would like to identify specific opportunities that capitalize on potential synergies between military and non-military space needs.

The Air Force wants to know about launch/propulsion strategies that are designed for affordability throughout the lifecycle and could potentially result in greater United States competitiveness in the commercial space arena. The service is also interested in how government-industry cost-sharing arrangements should be structured.

Deadline for responses is Sept. 19. An industry day is planned for Sept. 25-26 at Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC) in Los Angeles.

The Air Force is particularly interested in responses to technical questions for both propulsion suppliers and launch paunch providers. For propulsion suppliers, these include: a solution recommended to replace the capability currently provided by the RD-180, the probability such an engine could be developed to support multiple users and a range of launch requirements and the recommended propulsion system cycle and propellant combination for the propulsion system proposed.

The Air Force wants recommendations from launch providers regarding business arrangements relating to propulsion system procurement and vehicle integration. That includes things like contractor teaming and shared investment. The service also wants to know what co-investment arrangement would be sought by potential contractors to ensure a viable business case if the government were to seek a shared investment for the propulsion system development. This would include how it would be phased by fiscal year and what data rights, if any, would be desired or required.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), currently the sole provider of national security space launches to the Defense Department, said earlier this summer it is willing to develop a next-generation engine without government investment, but warned a purely private program could deliver the Air Force less advanced propulsion technology. ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA], also said it signed commercial contracts with multiple domestic companies to investigate next-generation liquid oxygen (LOX)/hydrocarbon first stage propulsion concepts.

ULA expects to select its future concept and engine supplier by the fourth quarter of 2014 to enable initial launch capability by 2019 of the new system (Defense Daily, June 18).

Possible respondents to the RFI include Aerojet Rocketdyne, which develops the RS-68 engine used in ULA’s Delta IV launch vehicle. Another potential respondent is Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which is developing its own next-generation engine for its launch vehicles. A third potential respondent is Blue Origin, which is also making both a next-generation engine and launch vehicle. Blue Origin declined to comment while the other two companies did not respond to requests for comment on the RFI.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is a division of GenCorp [GY].