Reports of the planned demise of the Atlas V rocket may be premature, now that a team of Aerojet Rocketdyne, Dynetics and Schafer are exploring the possibility of keeping the workhorse launch vehicle alive with the new AR-1 propulsion system in development by Aerojet.

The companies requested information from the Defense Department in an April 29 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on what intellectual property the government and facilities the government may own. This is in an effort to understand whether the trio can make a business case to sell a re-engined Atlas V to the government under the revamped Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program as well as to compete in the commercial market.

Atlas V was originally developed by Lockheed Martin; it is now built and operated by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture formed in 2006 as a monopoly to sell EELV services to the Pentagon.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno says he plans to retire the Atlas V at the end of the decade due to the rocket’s reliance on a politically unpalatable Russian RD-180 engine. This would make way for the company’s plans to design an all-new rocket, the Vulcan, to handle the spectrum of missions now supported by Atlas V and Delta IV, including the heavy variant.

“We are very concerned that the plans announced in 2015 will retire the Atlas V prematurely,” says David King, Dynetics CEO. An industry source questions Bruno’s plans: “Why would you do this? Why would you make such a radical shift” away from the kerosene-fueled RD-180 and to the BE-4, which runs on methane that requires far larger tanks.

Bruno did not provide comment on the team’s plans for Atlas V by press time.

Government response to the April 29 letter “was not negative,” the industry source said. This team is backed by longtime industry leaders. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO is Scott Seymour, who had a long career at Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems before entering the launch arena. Michael Griffin, former NASA administrator and outspoken advocate of opening the forthcoming EELV competition to include the AR-1, heads Schafer. King once headed the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

The introduction of an Aerojet Rocketdyne/Dynetics/Schafer team could take the market from its current monopoly to one with three viable competitors, the third being SpaceX, which continues to evolve its Falcon family of launchers.

But there are several hurdles for the team. Government officials are researching what data the Pentagon owns on Atlas V versus what might need to be purchased. This could include drawings and plans and tooling to produce the rocket. “There is a lot of tooling” at ULA’s facility in Decatur, Alabama. “If they are not going to make use of it, then somebody else can,” the industry source says.

If the prospect is financially viable, the team plans to produce the re-engined Atlas V at a yet-to-be-disclosed facility in northern Alabama not far from where ULA currently builds them in Decatur, the source says. The cost is unknown.

Another challenge is staying on track with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 development plans. The company is developing the liquid-oxygen/kerosene engine as a “drop-in” RD-180 replacement. Aerojet officials contend they can make the 2019 congressional deadline for a new engine, even though that would be much quicker than traditional engine developments. This is due to advances in additive manufacturing, company officials say. With the engine ready in 2019 and likely a few flights on Atlas V for certification, the industry source says the re-engined rocket could be ready for use in 2020.

The hazard, however, is funding. Aerojet Rocketdyne officials have been openly frustrated by slow progress by the Air Force in crafting a strategy for a propulsion program. A traditional Pentagon contractor with less access to private funding, Aerojet Rocketdyne has been lobbying hard for government money to augment its work on the engine while propulsion for Falcon variants and the Vulcan are privately funded.

This means the Aerojet/Dynetics/Schafer team will likely rely on a more traditional government funding model to bring their design to fruition while ULA and SpaceX tap private cash at a time when defense spending is under pressure.

The upside, this source says, is Atlas V’s track record. Unlike Vulcan, which is still a paper rocket, and Falcon 9, which has yet to fly defense missions, Atlas V has 53 successful missions under its belt. This long history of reliability will be an attractive selling point for the government customer, which is intolerant of launch risk, especially when lofting payloads sometimes costing as much as $1 billion.

Furthermore, Atlas V has earned a reputation of being on time, a key requirement for some missions with very tight launch windows. Some government officials are concerned SpaceX has not consistently performed in optimal launch windows.

“Compared to starting with a clean-sheet launch system, upgraded launch pad and clean sheet engine, we believe that re-engining the Atlas V is the lowest cost, risk and schedule solution to getting the U.S. off of dependence on Russian engines,” King tells Aviation Week in an email. He notes that the company has been under contract to NASA for the past two and a half years developing and demonstrating kerosene-powered booster stages and engines. This work will provide lessons on the Atlas V re-engining project.

Re-establishing Atlas V under a new corporate flag – if it is even possible – will not be cheap. And a primary challenge will be making a business case as the Pentagon hopes to curb defense spending. Bruno said the average price of an Atlas V 401 (with a 4-meter fairing) is about $164 million if it is part of the U.S. Air Force’s 30-core block buy (or the lowest quoted price). SpaceX quotes around $60 million for a Falcon 9 commercial launch. “You have got to be down in the SpaceX neck of the woods” to be successful, especially in the commercial market, the industry source says.

Though a mainstay for Pentagon missions, Atlas V has not been as competitive in the commercial market. Only nine of 53 missions have been for commercial customers, according to ULA spokesman Chris Chavez.

Aside from Atlas V’s long track record of reliability, Griffin thinks Aerojet’s legacy will bolster the case for re-engining the launcher.

“Aerojet Rocketdyne has produced more flight-qualified liquid engines than any other company in the U.S., and they are on track to develop the AR-1 by 2019,” Griffin said in an email. “Recertifying an existing rocket with a new engine is a much lower cost than starting over from scratch.”

Meanwhile, the Air Force collected industry input from a draft request proposals for risk-reduction work in developing a replacement for the Atlas V’s Russian RD-180. Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of space and launch for Aerojet Rocketdyne, says the Air Force should focus its funding efforts – service officials plan to spend $150-160 million for risk reduction for various options for new rocket systems. She contends the problem at hand is replacing the Russian RD-180, not necessarily developing an all-new rocket. “We believe there is an engine problem, not a launch vehicle problem,” she tells Aviation Week. At issue is whether this funding could be “spread too thin,” according to one industry source, if it supports not only an RD-180 replacement but other systems critical to an entirely new rocket, such as solid boosters or a new upper stage.

While this draft RFP is for technology work, it will underpin a yet-to-be-articulated plan by the Air Force to eventually procure launch services. The service’s goal is to maintain two providers, each capable of handling the entire spectrum of Pentagon and intelligence community launch missions – from the smallest payloads to those larger ones that currently require a Delta IV Heavy (with its three rocket cores). These launch services awards are expected as early as 2020.

The Air Force could get a final request for proposals for this technology development phase as early as this month, with an eye toward obligating the funding prior to the close of this fiscal year Sept. 30.