Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Air Force Awards Rocket Engine Development Contracts

The U.S. Air Force selected Aerojet Rocketdyne and United Launch Alliance to share in a public-private partnership to jointly develop the AR1 engine, shown above in an artist rendition. Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

The U.S. Air Force on Monday awarded contracts worth more than $160 million to two separate firms involved in the development of new rocket engines to help end U.S. reliance on Russian-made rocket motors for national space launches. The announcement marks another step toward the Pentagon’s goal of replacing the RD-180, which currently powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, with a domestic alternative by 2019.

The Air Force awarded a $115-million contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc for development of its AR1 rocket propulsion system prototype.

The contract marked a victory for the company after a big setback last year, when one of its key customers, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, announced a surprise switch to solid rocket boosters made by Orbital ATK after 2018.

It also awarded a $46.6-million contract to a partnership of United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado, and Blue Origin, a Kent, Washington-based startup owned by Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos, for development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine.

The agreement regarding AR1 implements Section 1604 of the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the development of a next-generation rocket propulsion system that will transition away from the use of the Russian supplied RD-180 engine to a domestic alternative for National Security Space launches.

The work is expected to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2019.

"This award from the U.S. government demonstrates its support of AR1 and recognizes the priority of assured access to space for our critical national security assets," said Eileen Drake, CEO and President of Aerojet Rocketdyne. "The AR1 engine is the option with the least technical risk that allows the United States to quickly and efficiently transition off its use of Russian-supplied engines currently used on the Atlas V launch vehicle.

The liquid oxygen/kerosene-fueled AR1 booster engine uses an advanced oxidizer-rich staged combustion engine cycle and will be available for commercial sale to any U.S. launch provider. AR1 will be the nation's first domestically produced oxidizer-rich staged combustion kerosene engine.

According to Drake, "This engine will be available for use on the Atlas V, Vulcan and other launch vehicles currently in development."

ULA has been awarded a contract for the development of the Vulcan BE-4 and Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) rocket propulsion system prototypes for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

ULA has been investing in the development of the Vulcan rocket for more than a year. This agreement will enhance the company’s progress integrating the BE-4 engine with the Vulcan launch vehicle.

Development of the BE-4 engine is fully funded by Blue Origin, with investment by ULA, and offers the fastest path to a domestic alternative to the RD-180. Development is on schedule to achieve qualification for flight in 2017 to support the first Vulcan flight in 2019.

The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level. Two BE-4s would power each ULA Vulcan booster, providing 1,100,000-lbf thrust at liftoff.  Vulcan will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. ULA is teaming in the development of the BE-4 to enable availability for national security, civil, human and commercial missions.  Development of the BE-4 engine has been underway for more than four years and testing of the BE-4 components is ongoing at Blue Origin’s test facilities in West Texas. 

“While the RD-180 engine has been a remarkable success with more than 60 successful launches, we believe now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of ULA. “As America’s ride to space, we continue to meet our goal of delivering the most reliable launch systems at the most affordable cost, while developing a new rocket which enables brand new opportunities for the nation’s use of space.”

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