A version of this article appears in the May 26 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
The U.S. Air Force is rattled about the state of American rocket propulsion. There is entrepreneur-provocateur Elon Musk trying to wedge ’s commercially developed Falcons into the service’s decades-long embrace of Atlas and Delta launch vehicles, built by and , respectively. Then there is Russia’s tweeting deputy prime minister, Dimitry Rogozin, who says Moscow will turn off the supply of RD-180 engines that are on the Atlas V, which is used to loft the largest satellites critical to U.S. national security.
Like the morning alarm clock going off, all this may be startling but it is hardly surprising. If the U.S. is serious about wanting a commercial space industry to grow, why would it not expect a newcomer to demand a share of the business that has been going to what are essentially the American equivalents of design bureaus? It may not be nice to sue your potential customer, but it surely will get his attention.
Even more predictable was that someday Washington might regret leaning so heavily on NPO Energomash’s outstanding RD-180 engine for the Air Force’s(EELV) program. The plan had been for the liquid oxygen/kerosene powerplant to be produced in the U.S. eventually. But that never happened, because the government and industry found it hard to force themselves to put money into developing an indigenous capability when the RD‑180 could be bought directly from Russia for less money.
At the same time, the government allowed the U.S. space transportation industrial base to consolidate to a virtual monopoly. Lockheed and Boeing formed the United Launch Alliance to run EELV.was allowed to merge with Rocketdyne and become the sole producer of big liquid rocket engines. It’s easy to rest on your laurels if you have no competition.
Nor did the U.S. take seriously the need to develop new generations of rocket engines. It led the world in cryogenic propulsion, and liquid oxygen/hydrogen can give a rocket lots of oomph. But the technology is bulky, tricky and expensive and does not lend itself to reusability—the holy grail for dramatically lowering space launch costs—the way hydrocarbons like kerosene and methane can.
So it is encouraging that this appears likely to be the government’s focus if it tries to jump-start a renaissance in American space propulsion (see page 22). (Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX are already doing some work toward new hydrocarbon-fueled engines.) For the government’s work to produce the best results, it should have a single leader, whether it is, the Air Force Research Lab or some other agency. And it should assure that the work allows the maximum industrial competition practicable in the future through such steps as making the intellectual property it develops available to all U.S. companies. We’re glad the U.S. is waking up. Now get up--—and get to work.