Assured Space Launch Requires More than a New Engine

The struggle to maintain assured space launch capability without the Russian-built RD-180 engine, which powers United Launch Alliance rockets, is more complicated than just developing an American-made engine, said Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command. Although the request for proposals for a new engine should be issued next month, his command is not just looking for “engine solutions, but engines and rockets with a partnership with industry,” Hyten told defense reporters on Tuesday. Legislation passed by Congress last year after Russia invaded Crimea not only ordered the Air Force to stop using the RD-180, it required “fair and open competition” to obtain a US-built engine by 2019, and to have at least two qualified providers for national security space launches, Hyten explained. Developing and certifying a new US-made engine by 2019 “is challenging.” But it would take two years more to integrate it into a rocket and certify it for launch, said Hyten. “I’m not going to put a billion dollar satellite on top of a rocket that I’ve never flown before.” In addition, USAF would have to execute a contract with two launch providers that ensures the higher bidder gets some of the launches and that a provider could survive if a failure forced a prolonged disruption in launches, he said.