An RD-180 Rocket Engine Replacement? SpaceX and Aerojet Rocketdyne Moving Forward

NPO Energomash RD-180 engine used by the Atlas V.

A recent editorial by Aviation Week hits the mark in discussing the need for an indigenous replacement for the Russian RD-180 liquid oxygen (LOX) / kerosene (RP-1) rocket engine to power heavy lift rockets in the U.S.

Congress in the past, at the urging of the Air Force, had started the process of funding a similar rocket engine but with the cost projections decided to forego the idea and rely on the Russians. As well, commercial entities at the time did not want to invest their own funds to develop such an engine.

Which puts us where we are today. But where are we exactly?

The Russian deputy Prime Minister has stated that Russia will not sell the RD-180 engine to any U.S. company if used for the purpose of launching military payloads. Congress for its part as a response to this is considering putting some funding towards a new rocket engine development program in the budget. However the funding amount is a moving target and who knows what, if any funds will be available.

To this date the only company working on a comparable engine is SpaceX. They’ve publicly stated they are working on a LOX/methane engine nicknamed Raptor. Recently they began testing components for this engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

In another Aviation Week story “Aerojet Rocketdyne Targets $25million Per Pair For AR-1 Engines“, we learn that Aerojet Rocketdyne is in full lobby mode looking for funding for the AR-1 engine, a new engine that could replace the RD-180.

The article which interviewed Scott Seymour, president and CEO of GenCorp, the parent company of Aerojet Rocketdyne said the AR-1 could be used for the Atlas V, Orbital’s Antares and maybe even the SpaceX Falcon launchers.

That SpaceX would use an Aerojet Rocketdyne engine is laughable. Anyone who would suggest this does not understand what type of company SpaceX.

SpaceX is disrupting the existing market with its innovation and business plan. This is called disruptive innovation. They are currently setting the tone for commercial space launch companies.

With their build it in-house mindset and vertical integration there’s no reason for them to even consider using someone else’s engine.

At the Atlantic Council’s Captains of Industry discussion last week SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell was extremely forthcoming in detailing who SpaceX is, where they are going and how they get it done. Unlike their competitors who too often rely on government initiatives, SpaceX is investing in itself.

While Aerojet Rocketdyne uses the familiar route of lobbying to acquire funding for the AR-1 engine development, and you can’t fault them for going using a tried and true Washington business practice, SpaceX has instead had a business plan in place for years to develop its own next-generation engine. While additional funding from Congress would be great, SpaceX is quite prepared to go on its own. But to be fair to Aerojet Rocketdyne and other companies, SpaceX itself also has a lobby team.

The question is not whether Congress should fund the replacement of the RD-180 engine. That should be a marketplace decision based on need. And it certainly seems like there is a need now that the Russians seemingly doesn’t want to sell the engine to the U.S.

The Russians it seems have lit a fire under Congress by their actions and will have apparently set themselves up to lose this lucrative revenue stream.

If Congress wants to provide funding for an engine to be used to launch heavy military payloads, then fine, go ahead. But make sure it’s an open competition and that the commercial companies who know the technology better are involved in setting the specifications. While the RD-180 engine is a reliable product the basic technology is 50+ years old. It’s time for some innovation, whether it’s from SpaceX or another company. To build a clone of the RD-180 engine would be a mistake.

More RD-180 and related stories on the SpaceRef websites.

Marc is a the co-founder of SpaceRef a new media company focused on the space sector. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Blue Expansion, a look at the commercial space sector past, present and future. If you’re interested in the commercial space sector please visit SpaceRef Business for daily news.