The RD-180 Backup Plan

Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Space Command boss Gen. John Hyten told Senate legislators on April 29 they were confident Russia would continue to sell the RD-180 rocket engines needed to conduct national security space launches until a US-made substitute could be available. Hyten also assured the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee? they had a backup plan to maintain assured access to space if additional RD-180s were not available. The two officials urged the panel to support changes to last year’s legislation they believe restricted them to buying only the five RD-180s paid for by United Launch Alliance to power its Atlas V rockets, even though ULA would need 18 to conduct schedule launches until 2022, the earliest the US engine likely would be ready. If the Russian engines are not available, Hyten said he could use a combination of rockets, that would include ULA’s Delta IV, though he said that was “very expensive;” SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which cannot support the heaviest launches; and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s kerosene-fueled AR1 engine, being developed as a backup to ULA’s proposed new engine. In addition, OrbitalATK and Blue Origin are developing engines that possibly could be used, he added.