The head of the Defense Department’s RD-180 rocket study committee believes the United States could replicate the coding and metallurgy technology involved with the Russian-produced engine, but questioned whether that should be done with 40-year-old technology.

“I think the national level question is not could we, but should we,” Schafer Corporation Chairman and CEO and former NASA administrator Michael Griffin said May 8 during the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee’s (COMSTAC) biannual meeting in Washington.

Critics of the idea of replicating the RD-180 domestically have said the U.S. doesn’t have the expertise like Russia to reproduce its metallurgy, which is the study of physical and chemical behavior of metallic elements and their mixtures, known as alloys. Griffin chaired a committee to investigate DoD’s future with, or without, the RD-180, which has become a focal point of geopolitics and business since the international crisis in Ukraine and Crimea began. 

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin this week allegedly threatened to prevent deliveries of the RD-180 if they were used in military applications. That came after a federal judge issued a temporary injunction against the Air Force and national security launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) preventing the two parties from doing business with RD-180 developer NPO Energomash because it might have violated economic sanctions issued against Rogozin by President Barack Obama. U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Susan Braden last week lifted the injunction after concluding the transfers did not violate the sanctions. The decision, however, did not appease the Russians, and Rogozin proceeding with his threat to withhold the rockets.

The study has been briefed to senior DoD officials, Griffin said, and they are “very close” to being able to brief lawmakers. Griffin gave many clues to what the study committee considered while putting together its recommendations, though he cautioned that he wouldn’t reveal the group’s recommendations.

Griffin said fellow COMSTAC board member Janet Karika, director of interagency launch programs at Jacobs, was on the RD-180 study committee. Also on the committee was retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, former Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) director of operations and now vice president of program assessments for the Aerospace Corporation.

Griffin said the study committee was posed a strategic question: should DoD want two families of launch systems? If so, Griffin said, fundamental questions needed be answered, including: what should future launch vehicle designs look like; what hardware do they require, specifically regarding engines; does the U.S. want individual launch families, and, if so, what are the requirements? Currently DoD has the Atlas and Delta, which share RL-10 upper stage engines, but have different boost stages, with the Atlas and the RD-180 and the Delta with the RS-68. Griffin said it has been presidential policy for at least the last three administrations to run independent families of launch vehicles, stemming from a period of time in the mid-’80s when the U.S. lost four different launch vehicles in a short timeframe.

“Fundamentally this was study looking at RD-180 engine replacement and alternatives…is that something we actually need to do, or just something we want to do,” Griffin said.

Griffin said it did not escape the committee’s attention that more than one company is capable of producing next-generation rocket engine. Griffin said “at least two” engine manufacturers expressed desire to the committee to compete for a next-generation rocket engine, if such a program were to develop. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) develops the Merlin liquid oxygen (lox) kerosene engine used in its Falcon 9v1.1 launch vehicles. The RD-180, distributed in the U.S. by RD AMROSS, a joint venture of NPO Energomash and United Technologies Corp.– [UTX] division Pratt & Whitney, is also lox kerosene. Aerojet Rocketdyne, a division of GenCorp [GY], develops the RL10B-2 lox liquid hydrogen used in the Delta IV.

Emails to SpaceX and Pratt & Whitney for comment were not returned by press time. An Aerojet Rocketdyne spokeswoman said she couldn’t respond by press time.

Griffin said the United States’ license to produce the RD-180 domestically expires in 2022. RD AMROSS holds that license, Pratt & Whitney spokesman Matthew Bates said May 15, but he added Pratt & Whitney could also perform the work without NPO Energomash, if required. But this would not be as cost-effective as co-producing with NPO Energomash, Bates said. Could the U.S. produce the RD-180 after 2022? It’s possible, Griffin said, because it is doubtful another nation would go to war over it. But he said the U.S. likes to create public posture that it obeys its own laws.