Air Force Doubts New ULA Engine Can Be Ready by 2019

Atlas V launch of WorldView-3 satellite (Credit: ULA)
Atlas V launch of WorldView-3 satellite (Credit: ULA)

U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee Jones told a Senate committee this week that it would be difficult to develop a new rocket motor to replace the Atlas V’s Russian-produced RD-180 by the the 2019 deadline established by Congress.

“Because this,” James said, “is rocket science.”

James said the technical experts she’s spoken with estimate that it would take six to eight years to build a new engine and another year or two to integrate it into the launch vehicle. If those estimates are right, it would push the first use of a new engine well into the 2020s.

The Air Force has not decided what engine to fund to replace the RD-180, which powers the Atlas V’s first stage. United Launch Alliance, which builds the launch vehicle, has announced a partnership with Blue Origin to develop the BE4 engine.

The Atlas V is used almost exclusively to launch defense payloads. Replacing the RD-180 has become a priority given deteriorating ties between the United States and Russia.

In series of Tweets, ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno said he expects the first flight of the BE4 engine to occur in 2019. The new engine and rocket would be certified in 2022-23 for launching national security payloads.

“Developing an American engine by 2019, cert in 2022-23, is an aggressive schedule,” Bruno wrote. “The existing law leaves us no flexibility.”

“No, we cannot realistically accelerate certification to 2019. 2022-23 already has risk,” he said in another Tweet.