The Time for a New, All-American Advanced Liquid Rocket Engine Is Now | Commentary

Posted April 17, 2014 at 4:00am

In 1972, President Richard Nixon committed the United States to a space shuttle to meet all launch needs for America’s space program — for national security, civil space, human spaceflight and the commercial marketplace. Now, the consequences of this decision and others emphasizing globalization fundamentally threaten America’s vital access to space.

Because we put all our launch eggs in one basket with the shuttle, the United States delayed by two decades any development of new launch capability. When we restarted a program in new launch technologies, our emphasis on globalization left our space launch infrastructure without a critical element, namely a large, advanced-hydrocarbon-fueled rocket engine. Russia has had this capability for decades, China will soon have it, and the United States lags well behind. To protect vital U.S. national security and economic interests in the 21st century, America needs to develop an advanced-hydrocarbon-fueled rocket engine.

Recently, Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson wrote about returning to realpolitik. “Globalization,” he said, “could never swamp everything else. Economics is not omnipotent. Markets promote prosperity and deliver benefits, but they also stir instability and impose costs.” The geopolitical reality of 2014 in Syria, Iran, Crimea and Ukraine is that certain elements of vital American national security infrastructure can no longer be “outsourced” in pursuit of benefits from globalization.

Today American space access is largely dependent on Russia. Crew transport to the International Space Station is provided entirely by Russia. Our national security launch infrastructure depends on propulsion hardware that is imported from Russia.

America and Russia have a positive history of space cooperation. From Apollo-Soyuz to ISS in orbit, Russian and U.S. leaders have seen the benefits of cooperation in space exploration and commerce. In the 1990s those policies led America’s aerospace companies to form joint ventures with Russian aerospace companies. These ventures were created and, on net, paid dividends to Russian and American interests.

In the heady post-Cold War ’90s, these relationships reached their zenith when Lockheed Martin offered the U.S. Air Force an Atlas V launch vehicle powered by the Russian RD-180 liquid oxygen/kerosene engine for affordable, reliable access to space. This proposal was accepted and today is a workhorse of U.S. national security space access.

But as Samuelson concludes, after 20 years of globalization, we are “left today (with a) messy mix of old and new. Countries pursue their interests in ways that involve, but are not limited to their economic interests.” It is time for the United States to step back from decisions on our space program that clearly tilted too heavily towards globalization and post-Cold War rapprochement with Russia.

We do not suggest that space cooperation with Russia is bad or that it should be totally curtailed or discouraged, but simply that there are elements of U.S. infrastructure that cannot be outsourced indefinitely. We must revitalize America’s space infrastructure, and the right place to start is with an advanced-hydrocarbon-fueled booster engine — an engine critical to U.S. leadership in rocket propulsion for access to space.

America has not been idle in rocket engine development over the past 20 years. Today we produce several advanced engines — the RS-68 engine for the Delta IV rocket; the RL-10 upper stage engine for Atlas and Delta IV; and refurbished RS-25s for Space Launch System. The Merlin engine for Falcon launch vehicles is a relatively small hydrocarbon engine derived from an older U.S. technology that is not as efficient as current-generation oxidizer-rich staged combustion (ORSC) engines like the 30-year-old RD-180. ORSC engines offer performance advantages significantly affecting launch vehicle design, operations and safety, and provide spacecraft designers with a better launch environment.

These advantages can be maintained by developing a new advanced liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine produced in the United States. This new engine could be the replacement engine for updated Atlas, Delta, Antares and Falcon launch vehicles, power strap-on boosters for SLS, and enable future low cost reusable launch systems. By utilizing the engine across launch vehicles, efficient rate production can assure affordability for all. Such an advanced engine can be developed and in production in under four years.

The first building block of a national space program is the powerful, affordable, efficient and safe first-stage liquid-fueled rocket engine that sits under it. An advanced large OSRC hydrocarbon-fueled engine — all-American designed and built — is easily within our reach. We should build it now to assure the continued availability of economic and national security benefits derived from access to space.

Mark Albrecht served as executive secretary of the White House National Space Council and president of Lockheed Martin International Launch Services. Don Kerr served as the principal deputy director of National Intelligence and director of the National Reconnaissance Office.