Air Force officials and industry executives pleaded with a House Armed Services subcommittee today to extend the 2019 deadline for finding a replacement to the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine that powers the Atlas V, or to consider another launch system with an engine made in the United States.

But Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, was adamant: He wants replacement for the RD-180 that can be cheaply worked into the Atlas V, and he wants it as soon as possible.

Rollout of Atlas V GPS IIF-4, Cape Canaveral AFS“I want a new engine. I don’t want a new rocket. We want something replace the RD-180 and, if not be a drop-in fit on the Atlas V, something that doesn’t require a whole lot of modifications to work on the Atlas V,” he said during the hearing.

The problem is that might not be feasible, at least not by the 2019 deadline set by Congress in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, Air Force officials and industry executives said.

While it is possible that industry could develop a replacement for the RD-180 by 2019, the engine must be integrated, tested and certified, which will take another couple of years, said Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command.

“We do not want to be in a position where significant resources have been extended on a rocket engine, and no commercial provider has built or modified the necessary rocket,” he said.  

Rather than focusing on the RD-180 replacement, the Air Force is working toward a broader goal of having competitive assured access to space with domestic engines by 2022, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, commander of Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center.

“From our perspective, solely replacing the RD-180 with a new engine is not the complete solution since rockets are heavily influenced by engine design,” Greaves said. A solution built for use on the Atlas would likely not be able to be used by another service provider without modifications to the engine or launcher, which could stifle competition.

United Launch Alliance (ULA), which manufactures the Atlas V, is developing a new rocket propulsion system called Vulcan. However, the rocket will not be certified by the Air Force for operational use until 2021 at earliest, said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO. ULA is a joint venture formed by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].

Of Vulcan and other launch vehicles, Rogers said “That’s awesome, as long as we’re not paying for it,” reiterating that “we want an engine to be able to get our critical missions in space in a timely fashion.”

ULA is working with Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne on engines that could replace the RD-180, but until then will need access to the RD-180 to compete for launches, Bruno said. ULA will likely downselect to a single entrant in 2016, as it cannot afford to fund both the development of both engines, he said.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine is on schedule to be certified for flight in 2017 and ready to support the first Vulcan flight in 2019, said Rob Meyerson, the company’s president.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is putting forward the kerosene powered AR1,  said Julie Van Kleeck, its vice president of advanced space and launch programs. The company plans on providing a full AR1 engine to ULA in 2018.

Because it started development after the BE-4, the AR1 is about 16 months behind in development, Bruno said.

Both Meyerson and Van Kleeck clarified that neither engine would be a “drop in” replacement, and that modifications would be necessary to integrate the motor with the Atlas V.

Meanwhile, Orbital ATK [OA] has no plans to compete for the RD-180 replacement, but is working on a new launch system, said Frank Culbertson, the president of its space systems group.

Given the witnesses’ testimony, it’s unrealistic for lawmakers to believe that fielding a drop-in RD-180 replacement is possible in the near future, said subcommittee Ranking Member Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.).

“I’m a little worried that we’re pursuing a unicorn here,” he said.