Lost in Space
A version of this article appears in the June 16 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
GenCorp CEO Scott Seymour was in our offices the other day, advocating a strategy—I will not say a new strategy because there hasn’t been one up to now—for the U.S. government’s development and procurement of large liquid-fuel rocket engines. It might be an expensive solution to a problem that we don’t have.
GenCorp swallowed up Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne last year to become the exclusive U.S. engine supplier to the United Launch Alliance, under theRocketdyne brand. It is now proposing something unknown since the days of Apollo: a new U.S. government-sponsored liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene engine, called AR-1.
Seymour proposes that the government conduct a competition to select a new 250,000-lb.-thrust rocket, which then would be available for anyone providing launch services toor the Air Force. The other qualified competitor would be , which would need to design a new engine since its Merlin is too small and the in-development LOX-methane Raptor is too large.
The desire for a new engine contest is understandable, since GenCorp (and the government space program it supplies) is in a hole that the customer has been digging diligently for decades. In the early 1990s, as it became clear that the space shuttle was neither safe nor affordable, and with government spacecraft being launched by a triad of elderly rockets, the customer made a new plan.
The Pentagon would develop two new expendable rockets andwould build an X-plane demonstrator for a reusable launch vehicle. The government would use competing expendables under full-service launch contracts, while the X-plane would reduce risk for an industry-funded development program.
The reusable-launcher project cratered, thanks to unrealistic requirements. TheX-33 demonstrator (see photo) was scrapped, unflown, in 2001. The yielded the Atlas V, with Russia’s RD-180 engine, and the all-American LOX-hydrogen Delta IV, but the business model did not work as well and competitors had to be merged into a monopoly. Today, GenCorp’s only homegrown, operational booster engine is the RS-68 on the Delta IV, which survives because it is the only launcher for big, secret military satellites.
The threat of a Russian embargo on the RD-180 is another problem of the government’s own making. The original plan was to bring production in-country, but nobody wanted to pay to do it, partly because it would be expensive. As one Pratt & Whitney executive said as the deal was being put together: “The good news is that we’re 20 years ahead of the Russians in gas turbines. The bad news is that we’re 20 years behind them in rockets.” If the RD-180 cannot be relied on, GenCorp and others argue, the U.S. has a national need for a new engine as a backup to the RS-68.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is using embargo fears to push its case, stalking the military market like a ravening wolf and offering both the low costs of kerosene and the proposed Falcon Heavy to replace Delta IV. One of Seymour’s executives thought I was criticizing SpaceX when I called the Merlin “the world’s best-built V-2 engine,” but I wasn’t. The KISS principle (“keep it simple, stupid”) is most applicable to space launch.
SpaceX is advancing in all directions —a human-rated spacecraft, reusability and a million-pound-thrust LOX-methane motor—and despite normal setbacks, it has failed to fall on its face as many people believed it would.
Hence GenCorp’s concern. But its solution runs counter to the total-launch-service model used by most of the industry, where the prime contractor selects or builds its motors. As SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last week: “It would be very unusual for us to buy a critical piece of our strategy and our technology from somebody else.” I think that she meant to say “are you out of your tiny mind?” but was trying to put it diplomatically.
Since Seymour expects a government-funded development program after a paper-and-components competition, too, the next question is: “What new technology is the government funding here?” High-chamber-pressure LOX-kerosene rockets may be new to U.S. industry, but not to the world.
If big U.S. government money is going to be spent on space launch, and if SpaceX can provide an “assured access” backup, why not spend it on reusability—the only strategy that promises dramatically lower costs. The X-33 did not fail, and the shuttle did not miss its economic goals by a parsec or two, because reusability is a bad idea: Lousy requirements did it for them both. A modern, intelligently sized two-stage reusable system is like G.K. Chesterton’s view of Christianity: It “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” It’s time to change that.