COLORADO SPRINGS – An influential government commission is recommending the quick start of a new liquid oxygen (LOx)/hydrocarbon engine program not only as a measure to mitigate an Atlas V gap if Russia cuts off its supply of RD-180 engines to the U.S., but also to provide an alternative to the Delta IV in nearly a decade.

The group was hastily gathered earlier this year to look at the effects of a supply problem with the Russian RD-180 once tensions began to mount with the U.S. over the Crimea and Ukraine crisis. Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Howard Mitchell, now an Aerospace Corp. executive, led the commission with former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin as deputy chair, and its findings are being well received by Air Force leadership, according to industry sources. Though not made public, the findings are included in a summary briefing obtained by Aviation Week.

With Atlas slated to assume 56% of the manifest through 2020, an RD-180 shortage would cause payload delivery delays despite options existing today to mitigate them, the commission finds. These delays appear more severe than officials at United Launch Alliance and the Air Force have indicated thus far. Both have pointed to the ability to dual-manifest Atlas V payloads (shift them to the Delta IV) as a mitigation, but the commission finds that even in doing so, there could be delays and a high price.

ULA did not provide comment; nor did Mitchell.

The immediate thorny issue is that Altas V has 38 launches on the manifest with only 16 RD-180s in the U.S. inventory, and supply is in question. The engine is made by NPO Energomash and sold to United Launch Alliance (which manages Atlas V and Delta IV) through the RD Amross joint venture with Pratt & Whitney; Pratt is in the process of transferring the end user license to Aerojet Rocketdyne as it is getting out of the launch business.

A shift of 22 missions would call for an increase in Delta IV production and even in doing so the backlog for this rocket would not be met until fiscal 2019, they say in their briefing.

ULA CEO Mike Gass said he has already begun talks with suppliers to look at the effect of ramping up production of the Delta IV and, possibly, a premature end to the Atlas V in light of Russia’s May 13 threat to cut off the RD-180 supply. This is despite a contract definitized in December that calls for the purchase of 20 Delta IV and 16 Atlas V cores in a block buy.

Air Force officials have said Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Falcon 9 v1.1 could be certified to compete against ULA for launches as soon as December, though more likely in March. The commission says this schedule is "aggressive," and even once certified, the Falcon 9 v1.1 would only be able to assume a small number of the satellites left without a ride if the Atlas V is retired, due to the Falcon’s lift capabilities.

The worst-case scenario is that the last Atlas V launch takes place tomorrow, May 22; it is slated to loft a classified National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) payload.

This scenario, which is unlikely, would trigger a roughly $5 billion bill for switching several payloads from the Atlas V to the Delta IV and ramp up production of the Delta IV to pick up some of the slack. Some payloads – such as the USAF Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) – can be lofted on the largest Atlas V (equipped with one RD-180) but would require a Delta IV Heavy (relying on three RS-68s, significantly increasing the cost of each mission. And, on average, these payloads would be 3.5 years late reaching orbit, the commission warns.

Though unlikely, the prospect has officials planning for a life beyond Atlas V.

The commission suggests forming a joint NASA/Air Force engine program that could not only support an Altas V requirement but also offer options in the future, including an alternative to the Delta IV. In the near term "options to mitigate [an Atlas V] gap are limited," the commission briefing says.

Gass says a Delta IV Heavy costs $350 million according to the terms of the 36-core deal with the Air Force. The Pentagon relieved Lockheed Martin, which developed Atlas V, of its requirement to build a heavy lifter due to cost, leaving the Delta IV Heavy as the only option to loft the largest national security satellites through fiscal 2021. The commission suggests that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could be certified as soon as fiscal 2018. "A new launch vehicle [based on this new engine] could be certified by fiscal 23 and replace the Delta IV," the commission briefing says. This could give the government two options and assured access with heavy lift.

One industry source suggests the government should buy the intellectual property associated with the engine to allow it control over how it is used.

The commission is open to new fuel technologies such as methane, this source says. SpaceX is exploring the use of a methane-based engine, and others could follow as the Air Force is funding some research in this area. The industry source suggests that risk could be reduced in this area with an additional investment of about $200 million over two years on top of the $141 million now planned in the budget and supported by the commission.

SpaceX slapped the Air Force with a lawsuit claiming its issuance of a $1 billion, sole-source deal to ULA was anticompetitive. This is further fueling a potential premature end to the Atlas V.