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.

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Calendar -

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.

An At­las V rocket launches with the Juno space­craft pay­load from Space Launch Com­plex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion in Florida on Fri­day, Au­gust 5, 2011. The Juno space­craft will make a five-year, 400-mil­lion-mile voy­age to Jupiter, or­bit the pla

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