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RD-180 Study Committee Adviser Approves Of DoD’s Pace Toward New Engine

An adviser to the chairs of the Defense Department’s RD-180 study committee approved of the pace the Pentagon is taking toward developing a new rocket engine as a key lawmaker calls for DoD to accelerate its progress.

Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group, said Wednesday while “he’d love” for DoD to go faster, it’s important for the Pentagon to not rush into such a critical endeavor.

“It’s important for them…to spend the right time to really understand what this means,” Hartman said at a Marshall Institute event in downtown Washington. “I’d hate to rush into a program, overcommit to something that we ended up not meeting, or to add additional costs.”

DoD earlier this year convened a blue-ribbon panel, chaired by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell and former NASA administrator and current Schaefer Corp.CEO Michael Griffin, to study the ramifications of losing access to the Russian-made RD-180 first stage rocket engine that powers most of the United States’ national security space launches. The panel convened shortly after tensions between Russia and Ukraine grew over Crimea.

The Air Force obtains the RD-180 for use through launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA), which buys the engine from RD AMROSS, a joint venture of engine manufacturerNPO Energomash of Russia and Pratt & Whitney of United Technologies Corp. [UTX]. ULA is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Boeing [BA].

One key takeaway from the study committee was that action must be taken in fiscal year 2014 to mitigate the current risk of losing access to the RD-180 and to preserve future options. Hartman pointed out DoD took steps in a July reprogramming request to begin risk reduction efforts toward a new engine. The Pentagon requested nearly $27 million to develop strategies, technology maturation activities and early concept studies and strategies that would encourage competition in the national security launch program, known as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV).

Activities spurred by the reprogramming requested would include multiple contracted efforts encompassing development of combustion chamber modeling and simulation strategies, identification of key risk components, technology development work on engine components of diverse types, requirements definitions, and maturation of key components, according to the request. The reprogramming, which must be approved by the House and Senate armed services committees and the House and Senate appropriations defense subcommittees, was first reported by Inside Defense.

One lawmaker, on the other hand, wishes the Pentagon was working faster to end reliance on Russia for a key national security component. Senate Armed Services (SASC) strategic forces subcommittee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), during a joint Senate hearing on space launch, said witness estimates that developing a new engine could take between five and eight years were “unacceptable.”

“If we got busy on it, I think we’d save money in the long run,” Sessions said July 16. “The longer we delay it, the more alternatives we’re going to have to use, more expensive launches and delaying of launches and all that…I just wish we could go faster and make (a) decision.”

Sessions said the House proposed in its authorization and appropriations committees providing $220 million toward new engine development.

Hartman said the RD-180 committee originally had a 60-day window to produce findings, but it was reduced to 30 days due to what he called “Hill interest.” Hartman told Defense Daily after the presentation the 30-day timeframe reduction didn’t dramatically reduce what the committee could tackle, but it did prevent it from further examining outside issues like acquisition strategy. Hartman said those issues didn’t need to be addressed at the time, but do need to be addressed if DoD decides to proceed with the new engine.

George Washington University Space Policy Institute Director Scott Pace said Wednesday the next-generation engine production issue was a problem that could be solved with proper funding, and that there were no scientific issues for DoD or the industrial base to work out. Conventional wisdom is that the United States has relied the RD-180 because it is cheaper and better than domestically-available alternatives and that the United States has not been able to replicate like the Russians key technologies like metallurgy.

This article appeared on the Defense Daily website at

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