The U.S. Air Force (USAF) decision to continue funding both the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 and the Blue Origin BE-4 engines will end United Launch Alliance (ULA) dependance on the Russian RD-180 for the Atlas-V rocket and new Vulcan launch vehicle set for first flight about 2020. The move will also provide new American-built propulsion options for future Orbital ATK Antares and SpaceX Falcon launchers and other future competitors too, says the USAF.
According to Aerojet Rocketdyne, the total AR1 agreement is valued at $804 million, with USAF investing two-thirds of the funding required to complete development of the AR1 engine by 2019. The Air Force intends to initially obligate $115.3 million with Aerojet Rocketdyne and ULA contributing $57.7 million.
In a separate action the Air Force also awarded ULA a $46.6 million contract to develop prototypes of its liquid oxygen/liquid natural gas (LNG) Blue Origin BE-4 booster engine and its BE-3 liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen Advanced Cryogenic Evolved (ACES) upper-stage engine, according to the contract announcement.
“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements continues to be our end goal,” said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s Program Executive Officer for Space. Greaves is also the Commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base that awarded the contracts.
“These innovative public-private partnerships with industry [for development of] their rocket propulsion systems are a key part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) acquisition strategy to assure access to space and address the urgent need to transition away from ‘strategic foreign reliance’” (also known as the former Soviet Union).
Although ULA favors the BE-4 over the AR1 for the new Vulcan, the AR1 could easily retrofit Atlas-Vs.
Although all U.S. parties praise the Russian RD-180 engine performance and the talented Energomash engineers that made it possible, the move is especially critical at a time when distrust between the U.S. and Russia is deepening over Russia’s increased direct military challenges to the U.S., along with its invasion of the Crimea and its support of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad.
The AR1 liquid oxygen/kerosene engine will have 500,000 lb. liftoff thrust, while the liquid oxygen/liquid natural gas (LNG) powered BE-4 is expected to have 550,000 lb. thrust.
The primary constituent of LNG is liquid methane, but Blue Origin now prefers use of LNG as the term used to describe the BE-4’s engine fuel.
Although there are tiny chemistry differences between LNG and liquid methane, the switch is more likely based on perceived public relations benefits from use of the word “natural” than performance factors. LNG is actually less pure than liquid methane, according to the fossil fuel websites carbonbrief.org and space.stackexchange.com. In addition to being “natural” LNG is also one the most polluting fuels there is, said the two fossil fuel websites.
Both of these rocket propulsion systems are designed for use on ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle. The BE-4 is being developed by Blue Origin under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as ULA’s preferred engine for the Vulcan, with the AR1 as a backup development.
“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.
She declined to mention that as of now ULA prefers the BE-4 competitor over the AR1 for the Vulcan, but does note that the AR1 would be the engine of choice to reengine the Atlas-V.
“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,” Drake said.
The work is expected to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2019. The total potential government investment, including all options, is $536 million. The total potential investment by Aerojet Rocketdyne and its partners, including all options, is $268 million.
“AR1 will return the United States to the forefront of kerosene rocket propulsion technology,” added Drake.
“We are incorporating the latest advances in modern manufacturing, while capitalizing on our rich knowledge of rocket engines to produce a new, state-of-the-art engine.”
The AR1 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.
“ULA is fully committed to transitioning as quickly and affordably as possible to a domestic engine,” said ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno. “Our supplier, Aerojet Rocketdyne, is moving us toward one of two viable options with the excellent progress on the AR1 engine development.”
Because of each company’s strong commitment to ending reliance of the Russian RD-180 engine on the Atlas V, Aerojet Rocketdyne and ULA have been investing in AR1 ahead of a public-private partnership agreement.
The USAF, The Aerospace Corporation, NASA, and other government and industry experts have been kept apprised of progress on the AR1 since its inception. Most recently, Aerojet Rocketdyne held a major design review for the AR1 program with all stakeholders. The AR1 passed with flying colors, allowing the team to proceed with design implementation. Drake confirmed that “the AR1 remains on track for a flight-qualified engine delivery in 2019, which will fly in 2020.”
The AR1 also will be an affordable propulsion solution, enabling U.S. launch vehicle providers to be more competitive in the world marketplace. Low production costs will be realized by incorporating the latest manufacturing technologies such as additive manufacturing (3-D printing), white light inspection, and low-cost brazing and forming—all of which have recently been proven on other Aerojet Rocketdyne rocket engine programs. It is being priced at $20-25 million per engine.
ULA said its investment in Blue Origin engine development will be about $135 million, while Air Force contributions will approach $202 million. The total private investment by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to the Blue Orgin project is even more sizable but proprietary.
Aerojet Rocketdyne noted that Dynetics of Huntsville, Ala., will remain a key partner in development of the AR1.
“Our collaboration with Dynetics in developing key AR1 components is an essential element to having a certified engine in 2019,” said Jim Simpson, senior vice president of Strategy and Business Development at Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Dynetics has been an integral member of the AR1 development team over the last 18 months and, with this award, that cooperation will increase, said Simpson.
Under a Teaming Agreement, Dynetics will supply elements of the AR1 engine’s main propulsion system, the ignition system, and ground support equipment, as well as provide analysis support to critical engine designs.
“We are proud to be able to use Dynetics proven hardware fabrication capabilities and engineering expertise to join Aerojet Rocketdyne in this important endeavor”, said Steve Cook, vice president for Corporate Development at Dynetics.
“Our large-scale manufacturing capabilities and extensive aerospace systems expertise, combined with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s leading rocket engine technology, offer a fast and low risk way to end U.S. reliance on Russian space launch propulsion systems.”
Aerojet Rocketdyne and Dynetics have been collaborating on large engine programs for the past three years, he said.