United Launch Alliance (ULA) is willing to develop a next-generation rocket engine without government investment, but company CEO Michael Gass warned a purely private program could deliver the United States less advanced propulsion technology.

“We’re not afraid of doing it as full company invested…(but) if you make it private, (companies) tend to be a little more risk adverse,” Gass told reporters from the company’s office in Arlington, Va.

An Atlas V launches for an NROL mission.  Photo: ULA
An Atlas V launches for an NROL mission. Photo: ULA

ULA announced late Monday it signed commercial contracts with multiple U.S.-based 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.

The company is evaluating the technical feasibility of these new engine concepts for both private investment and government-industry, or private-public, partnerships. Aerojet Rocketdyne, a supplier of engines to ULA, declined to say if it entered into a study contract with ULA.

“We’ve been studying this for over 20-some odd years,” Gass said. “Maybe the reach and cost are not as great as it was a couple of years ago. So it’s time to revisit.”

Gass said “all options are open” and that ULA is not tethering any potential engines coming out of the studies to either the Atlas V or Delta IV launch vehicles the company currently uses. The Atlas V uses the Russian-made RD-180 first stage booster, which has come under scrutiny for being supplied by

NPO Energomash, which has significant Russian state ownership. Gass added that ULA is accelerating Delta IV production to make sure it has it as a ready backup in case supplies of the RD-180 are cut off, as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin reportedly threatened.

The Air Force’s top civilian sees at least a small amount of government investment in a next-generation engine program, though nothing has been hammered out on whether that is the right avenue to pursue. Air Force Secretary Deborah James said Wednesday there is at least a “minimal amount” that the government would “absolutely” need to be involved with regarding a next-generation engine program. James said no decisions have been made as to pursue a private-only or a public-private partnership or what, exactly, a public-private partnership would entail.

“I would think there would have to be some sort of government investment, (but) what does that mean,” James told reporters during a Defense Writers Group breakfast event in downtown Washington.

The White House late Tuesday announced its opposition to the House’s fiscal year 2015 defense appropriations bill with one reason being the proposed next-generation liquid rocket engine program. The report for the appropriations bill says $220 million was included to begin risk reduction and development of a next-generation liquid engine manufactured in the U.S. and ready for launch no later than 2022. House Appropriations Committee (HAC) spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said Wednesday the money would come out of the money appropriated for Defense Department research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) under Title IV, which is $63.3 billion. The House is expected to debate the spending bill as soon as Thursday.

The White House, in its statement of administration policy, said it objects to the unrequested funding, citing an independent study that concluded such a program would take eight years to field and could cost $1.5 billion with another $3 billion needed to develop a suitable launch vehicle. The White House said this approach prematurely commits significant resources and would not reduce reliance on Russian engines for at least a decade.

With a goal of “promptly” reducing our reliance on Russian technology, the White House said the administration is evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards.

Gass said ULA is accelerating RD-180 engine deliveries, going from an annual delivery schedule to two engines in August and three in October. NPO Energomash is also accelerating production, Gass said, as well as testing. Gass wants eight RD-180s delivered in 2015 instead of six and then eight engines each following year.

“We have a 29 engine order currently and we’re trying to get those engines all delivered months and years earlier,” Gass said.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said the 29 engine order, prior to acceleration efforts, was slated to finish in 2017. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA]. The RD-180 is distributed in the U.S. by RD AMROSS, a joint venture of Pratt & Whitney of United Technologies Corp. [UTX] and NPO Energomash.