U.S. Air Force announced that three American companies were awarded with contracts for further developing engines able to replace banned Russian RD-180 used in Atlas V rocket. It seems that ULA could back into game for launch service for GPS III missions.
Good news for three lucky companies and for United Launch Alliance? Not necessary. USAF declared that it counts on results in improving technology of rocket propulsion in time of two years. Recipients are: Tanner Research of Monrovia, California with $902000. Johns Hopkins University of Baltimore was awarded with sum of $935000 (awarded previously in November with $545000 for researching over developing technology of cooling rocket engines chambers) and $728000 for Moog Inc. of East Aurora, New York. USAF is going to award six to eight companies with sum of $35 million (grants from $500000 to $ 8 million) through February 2016. What it means for ULA? Firstly after signing by President Obama on 25 November 2015 bill for using by ULA last four ordered engines, situation is still bad. Additional four engines are only a fraction of number engines needed for starting in any serious competition with SpaceX for GPS III launch service. Next, after announcing on 9 December and approving on 12 December Omnibus bill with included sum of $220 million for further developing technology for replacing RD-180 engine, and according to National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 which prohibit utilizing Russian engine after 2019, it seems that ULA had no other possibility then put stress to keep with schedule to start operating Vulcan rocket on 2019. Program of developing new engine called Competitive Rocket Innovation Motor/Engine Arrangement (CRIMEA) is according to Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command (according to interview for Spacenews.com) problematic. General claimed that such program does not exist in reality:
“We don’t have a program to spend that $220 million…”
Omnibus bill is also contains recommendation to perform trials of new engine on 2019. It seems that ULA will not take any benefits from CRIMEA – contracted provider of engines for Vulcan is Blue Origin with their BE-4 engine which is advanced in development. It is probable that results of CRIMEA will not be satisfying – firstly because of time frame – two years it is not enough for developing new rocket engine from scratch. Next it is not known which launch vehicle will utilize this engine. ULA will not be interested in adopting it into Atlas V rocket because of planned replacing it with Vulcan. Designing universal engine is to adopt it in future rocket is rather not possible. Result of CRIMEA could be overall development of rocket engine technologies which could be shared in future with engine manufacturers. Otherwise. it will be nothing more developing engine for not existing rocket, unless there is something not widely known.