Support for quickly starting a new liquid oxygen (LOx)/hydrocarbon rocket engine, possibly relying on methane fuel, is growing in U.S. space oversight circles. An influential government commission and senior Air Force officials are throwing their weight behind it, and momentum is mounting amid the political firestorm surrounding Russia’s threat to cut off the supply of RD-180 engines used on the Atlas V first stage.

But support is less about easing an RD-180 supply shortfall and more about preserving options in the long term to fulfill the White House’s “assured access to space” policy, according to a prominent industry expert and the commission’s findings.

This policy calls for maintaining two viable launcher families in order to lessen the impact of a satellite grounding in the event one of them experiences a problem. It is, for now, satisfied with the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V and Delta IV families. ULA has had a monopoly over national security payloads since 2006 when it was formed out of a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s launch businesses.

The Atlas V—always the less expensive of ULA’s fleet (partly owing to the Russian engine sourcing), the most competitive in the commercial market, and the nearest peer to Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) new Falcon family—is effectively over, an industry source says. This longtime player in the space industry preferred talking on background. The convergence of a Russian threat to cut off RD-180 supply, SpaceX’s impending certification to compete with the Falcon 9v1.1 and the lawsuit filed by SpaceX April 28 claiming ULA’s sole-source deal with the U.S. Air Force was anticompetitive has put so much pressure on the Atlas V that it is unlikely to survive, the source says.

Still, government and industry sources here suggest that the May 13 announcement of Russia halting RD‑180 deliveries and exiting from International Space Station (ISS) cooperation in 2020 (four years earlier than planned) could be more bark than bite. Air Force Space Command chief Gen. William Shelton said neither the U.S. government nor ULA have received official notification of any supply change for the RD-180. “We need to find out . . . if that is an official position. Right now I don’t think we have official indication [but] business as usual is the state of play with Russian industry,” Shelton told reporters last week at the 30th Space Symposium here. 

Regardless of whether the supply of engines is cut off, the political maelstrom seems to have reached a point of no return with lawmakers unwilling to remain reliant on Russian propulsion for space missions. “I don’t see us going into an RD-180 coproduction mode. There will still be a reliance on Russian system engineering and subject-matter expertise . . . so you have not necessarily solved the problem,” Shelton said. The assured access policy had called for establishing U.S. coproduction of the RD‑180, but a decision to fund this was never executed by the government or industry.

If Atlas V goes away, the industry source says, the U.S. could eventually be left with a SpaceX/Falcon and ULA/Delta IV fleet for assured access.

The problem is the latter’s high cost, due in part to Boeing’s decision to build the RS-68 LOx/hydrogen first stage during its development, and to a lower volume of launches than hoped. This would trigger a need for a new rocket and, thus, a new engine to fulfill the assured access policy—the very engine recently garnering such swift support.

The “Mitchell Commission,” led by Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Howard Mitchell, a longtime Air Force space insider who is now a vice president at the Aerospace Corp., is backing the idea of a new liquid oxygen/hydrocarbon engine. And so is Shelton. “I would love to see us produce an engine; our industrial base has kind of withered,” Shelton said at the Space Symposium. “Personally, what I would like to see us pursue is hydrocarbon boost,” Shelton says. “I don’t think LOx/kerosene is the way to go. Certainly LOx/hydrogen is a thing of the past.” LOx/hydrogen requires big tanks owing to its low density and cryogenics, yet it is highly energetic. Kerosene is more dense, like a liquid, but not as effective. Engineers are now exploring whether methane—with qualities between the two—can balance these trades. It can be located on the rocket adjacent to the LOx tanks and is expected to produce good thrust, but work remains to make the technology operational. 

Shelton says a new engine project is apt to be only slightly more expensive than the $800 million it would cost to establish U.S. RD-180 production.

Lawmakers are supportive, despite pressure to reduce defense spending. “You tell us what you need, and we will worry about the money,” Shelton says they told him.

Though not released publicly, the Mitchell commission’s findings are included in a briefing obtained by Aviation Week. The panel calls for fielding the new engine in fiscal 2022. “A new launch vehicle could be certified by [fiscal] 2023 and replace the Delta IV as a more effective marginal cost solution to Heavy Lift,” the commission’s briefing says. To ensure the government can maintain true competition, it should buy the intellectual property, the industry source said. This would allow mating the engine with any vehicle the government chooses.

SpaceX’s yet-to-be-flown Falcon Heavy is expected to be certified around fiscal 2018, and the heavy-lift requirement is projected to extend beyond 2030. ULA CEO Mike Gass says the Delta IV Heavy will cost $350 million apiece, according to the terms of the 36-core deal. SpaceX advertises Falcon Heavy at $77 million for lofting 6.4 tons—or $135 million for larger payloads—both to geosynchronous transfer orbit. “SpaceX has to fail as a new entrant in order for Delta IV to succeed,” the industry source says.

Because the Pentagon relieved Lockheed Martin, which developed Atlas V from its original requirement, to build a heavy-lift version, the Delta IV is the sole booster of this sort in the fleet.

Without more Russian RD-180s beyond the 16 currently in the U.S., supply of Atlas V—which lofts military communications and missile-warning payloads—is expected to dwindle in 2016 based on the current manifest, 56% of which is allocated to Atlas V configurations, the commission’s briefing says. Thirty-eight Atlas V missions are slated through 2020.

Gass says talks are underway with suppliers to ramp up Delta IV production; the commission suggests that even this could not entirely preclude launch delays if the RD-180 supply dwindles immediately. An assumption of an immediate supply shortfall is “unfounded … and resulted in an over-exaggeration of the potential impact,” company spokeswoman Jessica Rye says.

Lofting such satellites as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency, Mobile User Objective System and Space-Based Infrared System will cost more on the Delta IV; some even might require a heavy lifter (dependent on three engine cores, which is far more expensive than the Atlas V’s single-core design for the same mission).

Gass and the Air Force are staunchly determined not to reopen the 36-core deal, which included orders for 20 Delta IV cores and 16 Atlas Vs. Gass went so far as to suggest the company is open to flexibility in the cost associated with shifting payloads from Atlas V to Delta IV, a process called dual manifesting as the two rockets were designed with commonality in mind. “We . . . are committed to meeting our customer’s needs,” Gass said at the symposium. “Who pays? We will settle that out afterward.” At issue is who would pick up the tab for breaking commitments to Atlas V suppliers and accelerating the Delta IV. He did not cite a figure for these measures.

The commission suggests the Pentagon maintain the $141 million investment in hydrocarbon propulsion risk reduction planned in the fiscal 2016 budget proposal, which is being crafted. The industry source says another $200 million could be added in the next two years to support the work, which is largely focused on maturing methane fuel options as a potential alternative to liquid hydrogen or kerosene.

SpaceX has announced plans to build the Raptor, a methane-fueled engine. Aerojet has largely focused on LOx/kerosene work; Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet Rocketdyne vice president for Advanced Space & Launch Systems, says an RD-180 replacement could take four years. Advances in methane propulsion warrant an open mind on the part of the government, one source says, although a downselect is inevitable in a few years.

Meanwhile, Shelton defends the Air Force’s work getting SpaceX certified to compete with ULA for national security launches. “When you are spending $60 million and putting 100 people against the problem to get somebody certified, it is hard to say that you are excluding them,” Shelton said of SpaceX. “They can’t compete. . . . They will not compete until they are certified.”

He says they could be certified in December or January, although Lt. Gen. C.R. Davis, Air Force military deputy for acquisition, suggests it could be as late as March. “The fact that [SpaceX] completed three certification launches, that is just for openers. There is a tremendous amount of analysis that needs to be completed, and it is in cooperation with SpaceX. This is a certification process they willingly signed up to” in a cooperative research and development agreement, Davis notes.

It calls for three successful launches of the SpaceX’s Falcon 9v1.1, two of which must be back-to-back, and a review of manufacturing and engineering processes. 

SpaceX supporters have suggested that the Air Force is dragging its feet on the certification. It is “very difficult to pick up the pace,” Shelton says. “It just takes time. It takes money. It takes people. I think SpaceX would have a hard time going faster than we are going right now.”

Ultimately, however, the industry source says SpaceX’s interest is not simply in getting Falcon 9v1.1 certified to compete, as it is only eligible to lift a small portion of the projected national security payloads on the manifest. The holy grail is to raise enough questions about the certification process so as to short circuit it and, eventually, eliminate it in its current form before SpaceX fields the heavy vehicle.

Certification is thorny for SpaceX because the company does not fly standard configurations, as it often includes risk-reduction work on missions. “Elon wants to self-certify,” the industry source says, referring to SpaceX founder, CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk. “The Air Force is not going to be able to certify [because] each time Elon flies a mission, it is a new rocket.”

For more about the U.S. Air Force commission’s report, see