SPACE RACE PART DEUX
The Pentagon depends on a Russian rocket engine to launch the satellites it uses to spy on Russia. It’ll need the help of the entire private space industry to replace it.
it all seemed so simple. Post-soviet Russia needed money. The US Air Force needed to launch spy satellites. And General Dynamics, the company that built the spacecraft that put those satellites in orbit, needed an engine.
This is how General Dynamics came to own the rights to a Russian rocket motor, a dependable workhorse called the RD-180. Over the years, the RD-180 has become the primary engine the Pentagon and the US Air Force use to boost that country’s government GPS and spy satellites into orbit using the Atlas V rocket – a rather obvious problem now that relations between Russia and the US have soured. Seeking an alternative, the Air Force funnelled R2 billion into two companies that might be able to build a replacement: Elon Musk’s Spacex and United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that inherited the RD-180 when Lockheed bought General Dynamics.
The US Treasury Department banned Russian engines in 2014, soon after the Soviet state invaded Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels shot down a civilian airliner. It was quickly forced to reverse the decision: even an exact copy of the RD-180 would have to be engineered, built and tested in a process that would take years. “These things do come home to roost,” says John Logsdon, founding director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
Now, the USAF desperately seeks a new engine – spreading money around the nascent private space industry like fertiliser. The Pentagon has also introduced competition, certifying that Spacex’s designs and operations are safe enough for some of the world’s most prized payloads. Without that stamp of approval, no company can even bid on a launch. Before Spacex was granted consideration, ULA held a monopoly.
The result: the future of the military launch business, worth about R1 trillion, is finally up for grabs.
As the new contender, Spacex has much to prove. It already has a fleet of American-made rockets and claims it can launch government satellites for R900 million less per mission than ULA’S current rate, but its reliability is shaky. After winning the right to compete in national security launches last May, it promptly blew up a Falcon 9 rocket.
This January, the Air Force provided
Spacex with R500 million to investigate the use of the more powerful Raptor, the engine of choice for the launch system Musk intends to use to send spacecraft to Mars. Unlike other Spacex engines, it would use methane as a fuel in place of liquid kerosene. Among other benefits, methane can be harvested from other planets for return trips.
ULA, of course, isn’t waiting for Elon Musk to swoop in and steal its lunch. The company decided not to bid for a 2018 military GPS satellite launch contract, possibly to demonstrate that no one else in the market is up to the job. It’s also running its own race for an RD-180 replacement. The contenders: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and industry stalwart Aerojet Rocketdyne.
On paper, the Ula–aerojet Rocketdyne partnership looks like a clear winner – Aerojet Rocketdyne already makes engines for ULA’S other rocket, the Delta IV and already has a new one, the AR-1, in the works. The Air Force has granted the partnership R1,7 billion to develop the AR-1 as an RD-180 replacement. Company officials say they expect a flight-qualified engine to be ready by 2019, with a first launch expected as soon as 2020.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has been launching test craft high into the air and landing them on concrete pads in west Texas. The work attracted ULA in 2014 and the alliance began working on an engine called BE-4. With zero orbital flights, Blue Origin has little experience. But it does have money: in addition to R685 million from the Air Force, the company has access to its founder’s billions.
In March 2016, Brett Tobey, vice president of engineering at ULA, summed up the field at a University of Colorado symposium. “We’re sitting here as a groom with two possible brides,” he said. “We’ve got Blue Origin over here, the super-rich A track record of actual launches. And because the Falcon 9 uses nine of them, there is redundancy in case of a single failure. Methane is easier to handle than the kerosene of the Merlin. But the real hook is the cheaper price. girl, then we’ve got this poor girl over here in Aerojet Rocketdyne.” The 33-year veteran was forced to resign over the comments. But it’s the clearest description of the choice ULA faces. “The chances of Aerojet Rocketdyne coming in and beating the billionaire are pretty low,” Tobey said. “We’re putting a whole lot more energy into BE-4.”
As the competition’s stakes rise, the world will watch the flight tests and the liftoffs with great interest. The risk of failure is real, but the risk of inaction is even greater. Besides, there is something refreshing about American entrepreneurs and scientists going head to head to solve an intractable problem. Because everyone in the game has a US mailing address, no matter which engine takes the satellites to space, the country wins. The AR-1 would use the same fuel as current systems, requiring fewer changes to launchpads and rockets.