Building New Rocket Engine Not Off the Table

The Air Force is looking for ways to end US reliance on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for national security space launches, said service acquisition executive William LaPlante. The Air Force is already implementing recommendations from the panel commissioned to examine the issue after tensions with Russia grew earlier this year over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, LaPlante told attendees of his Atlantic Council-sponsored talk in Washington, D.C., on June 13. These near-term steps include prioritizing launch missions and determining if payloads planned for launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas V boosters, which utilize the RD-180, could go aloft on ULA Delta IV rockets, which don’t. “That is happening right now. In fact, it is almost done,” he said. That’s a hedge in case Russia stops supplying the RD-180s and the US stock of some 15 of them is exhausted. In the longer term, as the panel recommended, is “consideration of a new domestic engine,” perhaps via some type of public-private partnership, said LaPlante. “The decision has not been made. … I don’t think we know enough yet. But it’s not taken off of the table,” he said. There are “some very interesting concepts out there,” he said. (See also Engine Wars.) (Atlantic Council webpage with video of event.)