The U.S. Air Force released a solicitation late Oct. 5 that envisions developing new, domestically produced space launch vehicles to end the service’s reliance on Russian-made RD-180 engines.

According to the request for proposals, issued by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, the Air Force plans to award launch service agreements (LSAs) to fund the development of at least three launch system prototypes. Bids are due Nov. 20.

A launch of an Atlas V rocket. Photo: United Launch Alliance
A launch of an Atlas V rocket. Photo: United Launch Alliance

The Air Force will ultimately pick two launch providers to replace the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5 rocket, whose first-stage engine is the RD-180. The Air Force has been under pressure from Congress for years to replace the Russian engine with an American-made one, and it has already funded industry work on rocket propulsion systems.

The Air Force wants to begin buying the new launch services in fiscal year 2020 through its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. It expects to conduct five launches a year mostly for itself and the National Reconnaissance Office.

ULA, a joint venture between Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT], is developing the Vulcan rocket to replace the Atlas 5. ULA has said that the Vulcan’s engine will be either the Blue Origin BE-4 or the Aerojet Rocketdyne [AJRD] AR1. Orbital ATK [OA] and SpaceX are also potential contenders for LSAs.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy for the Air Force acquisition office, told reporters last month that the Air Force is committed to using new launch vehicles and has no plans to buy more RD-180s beyond those already approved by Congress. But Bunch did not rule out the possibility that the Air Force would ask lawmakers for permission to procure more Russian engines if the new U.S.-made rockets are delayed.

“We need assured access to space,” he told reporters at an Air Force Association conference.

The Air Force, meanwhile, released a final RFP Sept. 28 for the launch of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC)-52, a classified mission slated for liftoff in the fourth quarter of FY 2020. Responses are due Oct. 30, and the Air Force plans to award a contract in FY 2018.

Another classified mission, the National Reconnaissance Office’s NROL-52 satellite, is scheduled to lift off on an Atlas 5 on Oct. 7 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The launch was moved from Oct. 6 due to weather.