Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Boeing Sees New RD-180 Replacement Engine Ready by 2019

A U.S.-designed replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine can be delivered for certification tests by the end of the decade, the president of Boeing’s network and space systems division said March 8.

“We should have engines available around the 2019 timeframe for certification,” Craig Cooning said at a briefing on the sidelines of the Satellite 2016 conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Boeing and Lockheed Marrtin are the two partners comprising United Launch Alliance, and Cooning sits on its board of directors. The company has relied on Russian-made engines for its Atlas V rockets to launch national security space satellites. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked Congress in 2014 to halt future acquisitions of the engine, although ULA has since been given a reprieve until a domestic engine has been developed.

Cooning said there should be two concurrent programs going forward, the BE-4 being developed by Blue Origin, a start-up founded by billionaire founder Jeff Bezos and the AR-1 from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

“Anything that United Launch Alliance does is ultimately to assure mission success and we think the best way to assure that is to hedge our bets and go forward for as long as possible with two engine providers,” he said.

ULA is developing its own new Vulcan family of rockets. “What ULA is doing is investing in a new rocket engine, and we’re doing it incrementally as we understand what the ultimate acquisition policy is here.”

The government is providing seed money for engine development to several companies, he noted. But the engine is only one component, he added.

“We think that is a step in the right direction, but an engine alone does not make a rocket,” he said. The corresponding investment to integrate the engine with the rest of the system needs to happen, he added. There is money in the 2017 budget proposal for rocket development. That is encouraging, but there should be an alignment between the Defense Department and Congress as development moves forward, he said.

Before Congress reversed its decision to completely stop RD-180 procurement, it appeared that rival SpaceX and its Falcon family of rockets would have a competitive advantage over ULA. Now that the alliance can continue to procure RD-180 engines for as long as needed, it is pushing ahead with investments using private and public funding, Cooning said.