New grants are answer for demand of the US Air Force for American made and comparable with RD-180 rocket engine. 

In spite of fact that ULA was allowed to finalize its order for RD-180 engines, US Air Force is still considering to stimulate development of American construction which will be comparative to Russian engines. New budget for 2016 includes appropriate funds for developing American rocket engines technologies under financial support of US Air Force. Necessity of stimulating development of rocket technology as crucial for USA security was stated and confirmed by SMC commander and the Air Force’s program executive officer for space, Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves in November 2015:

“The end goal of our strategy is to have two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements… This is essential in order to solidify U.S. assured access to space, transition the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program away from strategic foreign reliance, and support the U.S. launch industry’s commercial viability in the global market.”

Just before Christmas, on 23 December 2015 US Air Force announced that new recipients were chosen to participate in program. Following sums were granted: $3.1 million for Orbital ATK, $6 million for Aerojet Rocketdyne and $5.4 million for Northrop Grumman. From these three companies only Aerojet Rocketdyne possess ready engine – fueled with kerosene AR1, comparable according to Aerojet, to RD-180. Orbital ATK is subcontractor of ULA and provides different parts for ULA rockets including nozzles, propellant tanks, composite structures, booster separation motors for ULA. Northrop is trusted contractor of Department of Defense – experienced in designing launch vehicles under various military projects and lifting body space planes like HL-10 and latest, developed with Virgin Galactic, called XS-1. General program objective is creating American rocket engine comparable to RD-180 until 2019, but still without clarified vision of launch vehicle which will utilize such engine. It is probably result of differences in points of view of Congress and DoD, when Congress wanted to establish one program to achieve one engine and Department of Defense was more focused on developing technologies which could be utilized by various companies then one engine. It was signaled in December 2014 by gen. John Hyten and it seems that this issue was solved. At the moment it seems that program has changed into rather general way to develop technology related to the rocket propulsion, than a coherent program for the construction of one specific engine. Still it is not impossible that program will result in building new rocket engine by any company granted until 2019, but it is not as obvious as in the beginning. As mentioned before only Aerojet is able to show ready engine at the moment; other companies are rather focused on some parts, materials on technologies useful in rocket propulsion (about previous beneficiaries and CRIMEA program You can read in this post). It would be interesting if Congress decide in future to extend program for following years or it will be halted in 2019 irrespective of the result achieved. Hopefully grants will stimulate space industry and utilizing RD-180 will become only strange episode in history of American space conquest.


Air Force Awards New Rocket Propulsion Contracts

In Conversation with U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten