The House Armed Services Committee approved a measure on Wednesday that would allow United Launch Alliance to purchase up to 18 Russian-made RD-180 engines to power the first stage of its Atlas V rocket.
The vote sets up a showdown with the upper house of Congress, where Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) wants to limit the company to nine engines. McCain is in a fight with fellow committee member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is supporting a higher number. ULA builds the Atlas V in Alabama.
Given deteriorating relations with Russia, there is agreement that ULA should stop using the RD-180 for the Atlas V, which is heavily utilized by the U.S. military to launch defense satellites. However, there is no agreement on the best strategy and schedule to achieve this goal.
ULA is developing a new Vulcan rocket that would use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. It is also working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on the AR-1 motor as a backup option.
ULA says the Vulcan rocket would be ready for flight tests in 2019; however, it will take several years to certify the launch vehicle to carry valuable defense payloads.
The House Armed Services Committee has included provisions that would require to the U.S. Air Force to fund a domestic rocket engine for the Atlas V that would be ready to fly by 2019. The only engine that fits that description would be Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1.
The Air Force has been funding a variety of new rocket propulsion projects by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Blue Origin, Orbital ATK and other companies. House members have accused the Air Force of contravening the intent of the law.