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​Multiple contracts: US firm scrambles to replace Russian-made engine for Atlas rockets

Published time: June 17, 2014 15:22
Reuters / Gene Blevins

Reuters / Gene Blevins

United Launch Alliance (ULA), the US joint venture providing space launch services in the US, has signed a number of contracts to find a replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine, which is used in the Atlas family of rockets.

The announcement came after SpaceX, ULA’s competitor, sued the United States Air Force (USAF) to challenge what the firm’s CEO Elon Musk called a ULA monopoly. The USAF awarded ULA a contract for 36 launches at a value of $9.5 billion.

The company’s reliance on RD-180 engines was cited by Musk as one of the reasons why SpaceX wants to take its share of the launch market. The supply of RD-180s was threatened by the political fallout between the US and Russia, as well as US sanctions on many cooperation projects with Russia, including all space projects except the International Space Station (ISS). A midst rising tensions, Moscow threatened it could ban the use of its engines in American military-related launches.

ULA, an alliance between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., said Monday it will choose one of the designs suggested by the companies it has contracted by the fourth quarter this year and have a launch-ready replacement for the Russian engine by 2019.

Thus each company, while working at their next-generation liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon first stage propulsion concepts, is expected to conduct technical feasibility analysis, develop high fidelity plans, identify schedule, cost and technical risks, as well as cost estimates.

“ULA has a number of very promising alternatives and we are working with the very best propulsion companies in America,” said George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of Advanced Programs, and leader for the propulsion study. “There are many exciting advanced technologies that are mature and can be used to enhance our capabilities and our competitiveness.”

The company said it is in contact with a US-Russian joint venture, through which RT-180s are supplied, to evaluate its long-term feasibility in competition with the anticipated new engine.

"While the RD-180 has been a remarkable success, we believe now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine," ULA's CEO Michael Gass said in a statement. "At the same time, given that ULA is the only certified launch provider of our nation's most important satellites, it is critical that America preserve current capabilities and options while simultaneously pursuing this new engine."

Comments (9)


Berke Beenhouwer 20.06.2014 10:36

George 17.06.2014 16:30

Where is the "scrambling& ;amp;quo t;? There is no scrambling, just a well planned process to update outdated equipment.


You have a point when you say "outdated" , these engines where Russian and developed and in use around 1970. Only some time after the wall fell, around 25 years later, american Aerojet was ableto buy some, and to their astonishment, they were better than anything ever build in the states. Who knows what Russian technicians are developing today ? Maybe the US can buy some leftovers of those in a couple of decades :)


Bianca 17.06.2014 18:09

Yes, but then you do not seem to know Elon Musk, the private arm of neocon establishment. He is challenging ULA, in order to get himself inserted into the high-tech holly grail, the rocket engine technology. ULA is suggesting wise approach. While having two companies come up with a plan, it will continue collaboration with Russian partner. In fact, as there were no dangers in US losing that cooperation, the neocon push for crisis is extraordinary. Elon Musk has nearly destroyed Tesla car company when he bought it, just in order to get his hands on techology. He is politician, and wants CONTROL for neocons.


George 17.06.2014 16:30

Where is the "scrambling&quo t;? There is no scrambling, just a well planned process to update outdated equipment.

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