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.

More Questions About the Rumoured Google Satellite Constellation

I’ve been following this story for months and today after the recent Space News and Wall Street Journal articles I penned down my thoughts for a SpaceRef Business article. Read it here.

Other questions I didn’t cover in the article include:

Who would build the 180-360 satellites? That would be a huge contract. Would Google buy the expertise and do it in house?

Which leads to another question. Who would launch the constellation?

My first thought would be SpaceX.  After all Brin, and Page both appear to be friends with Musk. But would Google do the unthinkable and create their own launch company? I don’t think so. There needs to be a business case.

If they are going to launch smallsats then a Falcon 9 can launch at least 8 at a time using a Moog secondary payload adapter. They would need 23 launches if sending 8 up at time. At a current advertised launch cost of $56.5 million per launch Google would pay SpaceX approximately $1.3 billion for the launches.  If they had an adapter ring that could launch more satellites per launch, that would reduce the price even further. A Falcon 9 can launch 13,150 kg to LEO so there’s room for more satellites per launch.

With that many launches and the possibility of reduced flight cost if the Falcon 9 Reusable comes  online in time, Google could see that launch cost slashed. The very rough projected cost to build 180 satellites was estimated at $600 million. Add in development costs and you come within the $1-3 billion range reported for the project. Note, all numbers are rough estimates based on published reports and available data.

The question is, will they build it?

Goodbye Cable, It’s Been Nice Knowing You

Today the “Cable Guy” is paying me a visit to cut my cable. I’m done with cable TV. Today I say, welcome to the future of Internet and Free Over the Air (FOTA) TV. I’ll watch what I want, when I want without the need to pay for 95% of the channels I wasn’t interested in.

I still want to watch TV from the comfort of my sofa so how am I achieving this? It’s not as difficult as you might think.

The first thing I did was compile a set of web sites that broadcast the content I want into my own TV guide if you will. Then I bought a couple of Internet devices over the last couple of years to access content on my TV. I could have bought just one device but I’m a techie and like to play around with these devices and develop for them. I also bought a cheap indoor FOTA antenna.

The Terk HDTVI HDTV Indoor Antenna

I paid $50 for the Terk FOTA antenna and even though I face north-east in Toronto I still get 12 HD quality local and Buffalo stations (Facing south I would get more channels). So now I can watch local and some U.S. programming and it only cost me $50.

Apple TV and iPad

If you’re familiar with the Apple TV you know you can watch Netflix, MLB, NHL, WSJ TV etc. All of those require a subscription but at least it’s what I want to watch. I have two accounts, a Canadian and a U.S. account. The U.S. account lets me also access Hulu Plus and Skynews. There are other services but I don’t use them. As well, by using the U.S account I get access to content not normally available in Canada.

My iPad has many useful apps I can use to stream content directly to my TV though the Apple TV over my local network.

Google TV

I’ve got a Sony NSZ-GS7 box that plugs into my receiver and TV. While the reviews on this machine haven’t been great, I bought it to get better acquainted with Google TV for my business and to test an app I’m developing.

Google TV is still in its infancy. The YouTube app is average but the quality of the streaming is excellent. It’s the navigation within the app which is terrible.

Apps I use on it include Al Jazeera, CNBC and Netflix among others but the it’s the internet browser where it can really shine. I stream HD quality NFL games and other content.

The Secret Sauce

My secret sauce is access to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service which allows me to use my VPN enable router to access content in other countries. I recommend Asus routers and I use Hide My Ass as my VPN provider.

What the VPN does is assign my network attached devices an IP address local to whatever country I want to watch content from. It may sound complicated but it really isn’t. So when I turn on my Google TV, Apple TV etc. I the services I access think I’m in the U.S. for example. That’s how I access Hulu Plus etc.

The Cable Companies

I really don’t have anything against the cable companies. They run their business as they see fit though with rules set by the CRTC. However what I don’t like is being forced to pay for bundles of TV channels that include content I have no interest in.

If they offered all their channels a la carte I might be interested, but they don’t. Some industry experts say prices would skyrocket. Perhaps, but I was paying, with taxes and HD terminal rental, $100 a month and not even getting all the channels I wanted.


Other than the one-time cost of buying the Apple TV, Google TV and Terk antenna I calculated that my ongoing costs for my new way of watching TV will be at least 50% cheaper overall per year than what I was paying for cable and I get to watch exactly what I want. I think that makes cutting the cable a good choice.

P.S. My internet costs won’t go up. I work from home so I was already paying for enough bandwidth to cover my usage.

AngularJS First Toronto Meetup Video

AngularJS is a JavaScript MVW (model-view-whatever) Framework developed by Google that is gaining popularity as it shifts some of the load from the backend to the client browser frontend. That’s my simplified explanation.

AngularJS is just over a year old, and on June 19th Toronto held its first Meetup. I decided to go as I’m always interested in ways to lessen the backend load and this new framework has potential. At the last minute I decided to record the event. Unfortunately there was no proper place to setup my small Zoom Q3HD camera but with a little editing it seems to have turned out ok.