The Irreplaceable RD-180

The attempt to replace the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine with a US-made one could, in a worst-case scenario, leave National Security Space payloads without a ride into orbit, the Congressional Research Service found. In a report released May 13, National Security Space Launch at a Crossroads, the CRS noted a number of factors—including the unavailability of the RD-180 coupled with replacement certification or development troubles—could leave the United States without an available certified launcher in the future. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the Fiscal 2017 defense authorization bill limited the Pentagon to buying nine more of the Russian-made engines in Fiscal 2015 and 2016, but the House version, which passed Wednesday night, would allow the Pentagon to buy up to 18. In March, the Air Force awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne and United Launch Alliance contracts to enter into a public-private partnership with the service to build a replacement. The service made similar arrangements with SpaceX and Orbital ATK in January. But even with a smooth replacement transition, the CRS report noted, the performance and reliability of the RD-180 would probably not be matched until after 2030 because it has successfully launched 68 times since 2000.