COLORADO SPRINGS – United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno says Aerojet Rocketdyne’s claim of delivering an AR-1 rocket engine capable of operating on the Atlas V or Vulcan vehicles by 2018 is “ridiculous.”

“It is not going to happen. I would love for them to prove me wrong, but I just don’t think that is realistic,” Bruno tells Aviation Week in an interview. Until this week, Air Force officials were told the AR-1 would be ready in 2019. “They believe that they can do some clever things with new materials in additive manufacturing and analytical models that shorten the development cycle from what we have traditionally experienced. I believe that they are overly optimistic. It is our assessment that they are 1-2 years behind Blue Origin at this time.”

ULA is partnered with Blue Origin, developing the methane-powered BE-4 for its newly unveiled Vulcan rocket. But ULA is also partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is developing the AR-1 as a backup plan to the BE-4. Bruno says he will downselect between the two in the next 18 months, but he prefers BE-4.

In concert, Bruno says his only avenue to mitigate a possible gap in assured launch – a situation created by the company’s existing military launch monopoly with the Delta IV and Atlas V – is to get relief from a law limiting access to more Russian RD-180 engines, not to integrate AR-1 onto Atlas V. The RD-180 powers the first stage of the Atlas V.

This is a double whammy for Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has invested in an engine that apparently has little chance right now of earning its way onto a U.S. Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). Barring access to Vulcan, Aerojet Rocketdyne also is marketing AR-1 as a “drop-in” replacement for the RD-180 on the Atlas V. “We could integrate an engine into a launch vehicle while it is being certified,” says Linda Cova, the program manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne, said the engine could be ready in 2018 during a panel discussion at the 31st Space Symposium here April 14. While the BE-4 is funded through private investment, Aerojet Rocketdyne is lobbying hard for government money to move forward with AR-1.

“Getting to certification [for AR-1] by 2018 is definitely within the realm of reason if you have the money,” Van Kleeck tells Aviation Week. “There will be an acquisition. We have to go through that process as we are right now. We started working this last year and here we are a year later and no one has made a decision to do anything yet.”

This frustration for Aerojet Rocketdyne, however, is a byproduct of what could be a shift in Pentagon procurement strategy.

Traditionally, military rockets have been underwritten mostly with government funding based on specific requirements; with EELV that model changed slightly. Lockheed Martin and Boeing each got $500 million to help fund their respective Atlas V and Delta IV designs. The projected commercial market in the late 1990s tanked, however, leaving the government to shoulder the enormous burden of the EELV program since then.

Now, Aerojet Rocketdyne is operating under the legacy model, awaiting a nod – and money – from the Pentagon. Blue Origin, however, has been operating without government support.

Aerojet Rocketdyne is planning to conduct a preliminary design review for AR-1 in December, Cova says. To date, the team has conducted some subscale preburner testing on an RS-84 undertaken for NASA to understand design margins. Now, the company is focused on working on the preburners for an AR-1, Cova says.  

While relying on an older procurement model, Aerojet Rocketdyne is depending on new fabrication techniques – namely additive manufacturing – in an attempt to shorten both development and production cycles. This is fostering the company’s confidence that AR-1 will undercut traditional design cycle time.

Moving forward with a new system, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says she is hoping to use a public-private partnership, though service officials have not defined how this could work.

Blue Origin, which has tapped into private funding, is years ahead of Aerojet Rocketdyne now on its work, Bruno says. But Aerojet Rocketdyne is forced to spend money and effort to push for government funding while continuing its own development work.

Ultimately, at issue could be how much the Pentagon is willing to trust the claims of a relative newcomer to defense, Blue Origin, which is ahead and fully funded. One industry source suggests Pentagon policymakers are intrigued but also leery of relying on BE-4 until it is proven. Bruno, however, appears confident of the company’s processes and plans.

Bruno’s downselect decision within the next 18 months, however, will not allow for much wiggle room once made. The BE-4 design that relies on methane requires much larger tanks than the AR-1, which operates with kerosene, so a decision on the engine will dictate the design of the rest of the booster.

In the near term, however, Bruno is adamant that he needs relief from the so-called “section 1608” language in the fiscal 2015 defense authorization law limiting his access to RD-180s for military or intelligence missions. The language was inserted into the bill after Russia annexed Crimea, jolting Congress into an awareness about a weakness in its decades-long support of using the RD-180 as a cheap, reliable propulsion source for the workhorse Atlas V.

Debate is ongoing about the interpretation of the language – whether ULA can use two or five of the engines in the latest order – but regardless there would be a gap in capability, Bruno says. This is due to the company’s preference to retire the single-core Delta IV as quickly as possible. The plan to retire Delta IV artificially manufactures this gap, according to John Young, a former Pentagon procurement czar and consultant to launch rival SpaceX.

Bruno acknowledges that without legislative relief, his company is on dubious ground financially. Delta IV costs an average of 50% more than Atlas V, according to James. Manifesting Atlas V payloads onto Delta IV could be cost-prohibitive and drive more interest and capital into SpaceX’s Falcon 9 family.