U.S. Rocket Venture Adds Russian Engines While Rushing New Model

United Launch Alliance LLC, the largest U.S. company propelling satellites into space, is stockpiling Russian-made rocket engines even as it speeds development of a homegrown version.

The Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture expects to receive eight Russian-built RD-180 engines in 2015, three more than planned, after getting five motors this year, Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno said today. There is no immediately available U.S. alternative, according to the Space Foundation.

The twin-track approach shows the pressures on United Launch Alliance. As U.S. lawmakers scrutinize U.S. reliance on the RD-180, the company is working with billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC on a launch vehicle for the 2020s while customers also quicken the pace of missions requiring the Atlas V rocket and its Russian engines.

“We decided to pull ahead a little bit because we were forecasting an increased demand for Atlas” launches, Bruno said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. “So we are still filling the same purchase but a little fast.”

United Launch Alliance’s relationship with its Russian supplier hasn’t frayed amid heightened geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and President Vladimir Putin’s government, Bruno said. “We’ve seen no indication of interrupted supply” or any trouble getting the engines, he said.

Steady Performer

The liquid-fuel RD-180 engine has been a steady performer for Centennial, Colorado-based United Launch Alliance, with 100 percent of its missions launched successfully. The technology produces as much as 860,000 pounds (390,000 kilograms) of thrust at sea level, according to the Space Foundation.

United Launch Alliance will probably need to double its inventory beyond the current two-year supply of Russian-made engines to ensure that critical government and commercial missions continue unhindered while transitioning to a new technology, said Marco Caceres, director of space studies for Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant.

“The question: Can they get their hands on enough RD-180s to extend that inventory to three or four years?” Caceres said in a phone interview.

Bruno said the alliance is counting on the engine to blast a Boeing-made capsule to the International Space Station as part of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s program to resume U.S. human spaceflight on commercial vehicles.

The RD-180 is manufactured near Moscow by NPO Energomash and marketed in the U.S. by a joint venture formed by the Russian firm and Pratt & Whitney, the engine-making unit of United Technologies Corp. Pratt also holds a license to build the rocket motor in the U.S., Bruno said.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, which relies on a different liquid-fuel mix, would create 550,000 pounds of thrust.

Bruno said the engine is more than halfway through a development process that typically takes five years, and faces a crucial test of its complex power plant in the next two weeks. The target for flight certification is 2019, Bruno said.

The new engine technology will require United Launch Alliance to redesign the first stage of its Atlas V rocket and launch facilities, Bruno said.