The United States’ license for producing the RD-180 first stage rocket engine domestically lasts through 2022 and the engine would need technical work before the United States is capable of manufacturing the engine state-side, according to a key Defense Department official.
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Frank Kendall testified April 30 the 45-day study of DoD options regarding the RD-180 concluded. Kendall told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) the Pentagon has a pair of options: build the RD-180 domestically or produce its own next-generation rocket engine, though he didn’t say if these were the results of the study. DoD and Congress have been concerned about the national security space launch reliance on a Russian-made engine since the Russian-Ukraine crisis developed.
The RD-180, developed in Russia by NPO Energomash, has been rumored to be subject to retaliatory action from Russia in response to U.S. economic sanctions.
“There are a couple of other things beyond that we could do to mitigate the possible loss of the RD-180,” Kendall said. “I’ve never been entirely comfortable with that dependency…we’ve accepted that risk and now that risk is becoming much more real at this time.”
Kendall said he also brought the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program back under his “direct control” after previous delegation to the Air Force because he wanted to ensure as much competition as possible. DoD spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said this took place July 12, 2012. The EELV program, by way of launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA), uses the RD-180 in its Atlas V launch vehicles, which are predominantly used in national security space launches. ULA also uses the Delta IV rocket, which only rarely uses the RD-180. EELV is designed to assure the federal government’s access to space.
EELV has drawn substantial congressional scrutiny for cost overruns and its use of the RD-180. Kendall defended DoD’s 36 “block buy” of launch cores awarded earlier this year, saying the Pentagon saved about $3 billion and achieved a better price than anticipated in previous budgets. DoD’s decision to delay competitive EELV launches, Kendall said, was the result of budget reductions. The Air Force announced earlier this year it was reducing the number of competitive EELV launches during fiscal years 2015 to 2017 from 14 to likely seven due to the unexpected health of a satellite fleet and budget reductions. Kendall authorized the Air Force in a 2012 acquisition decision memorandum (ADM) to award a “block buy” to ULA while competing up to 14 cores if competition wasn’t viable at the time of need.
“The intent was in order to allow a new entrant to compete, a new entrant would not have to finish the certification process at the time they submitted a proposal because there’s about a six-month period of proposal evaluation before the award,” Kendall said.
This seems to be a point of contention with potential new entrant Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), which this week sued the Air Force in U.S. Court of Federal Claims to force the service to open its block buy to competition. SpaceX said in its lawsuit the Air Force executed the block buy less than 20 days before the company’s final certification launch for the EELV program. SpaceX’s three qualification launches were Sept. 29, Dec. 3 and Jan. 6. The Air Force formally qualified the Sept. 29 mission toward certification, but it is still deciding on the last two missions.
The RD-180 is distributed in the United States by RD AMROSS, a joint venture of NPO Energomash and United Technologies Corp.– [UTX] subsidiary Pratt & Whitney. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].