Air Force issues call for next-gen, U.S.-made space launch systems
By Brian Everstine in Military Times
The Air Force announced two steps Tuesday to move beyond its reliance on a Russian-made rocket engine for national security space launches, and to move toward a more competitive, next-generation launch system.
The service released a request for proposal for the development of a domestically produced propulsion system as part of the congressionally required move away from the sole use of the Russian RD-180 engine on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The goal is to award a total of $160 million to four companies to develop prototypes of new systems.
Industry responses expressing interest are due within 21 days. Companies that get a "go" from the Air Force then must submit final proposals within another 21 days.
The Air Force also released a broad agency announcement asking for industry help to mature rocket propulsion systems and reduce risks and thus improve overall launch systems.
The Air Force will grant six to eight awards totaling $32 million, with no more than $16 million per award. The goal is to advance the technology to the next-generation boost configuration, along with advanced propellants for launches. Companies responding to the solicitation have a deadline of June 16 to provide white papers.
Both announcements have short deadlines to meet congressional direction, and show that the service is serious about moving forward quickly on improving its assured access to space, said Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
"This is not something we are just approaching on with a relaxed strategy," Greaves told reporters in a briefing. "This is almost an Apollo, getting to the moon, sort of approach we are going for. I am very confident in the ability within the United States to get this done."
The goal is not simply to replace the RD-180 engine and stick in existing systems. Instead, the goal is to have two separate, next-generation launch systems available for continual access to space.
While much of the focus is on replacing the engine, Greaves said "we believe engine development alone does not improve assured access to space."
Tuesday's announcements are part of the Air Force's three-phased approach for the new systems.
The first phase began in fiscal 2013 with the block buy of evolved, expendable launch vehicles; procurement from fiscal 2015 to fiscal '19; and launches beginning in 2017. The Air Force recently announced that procurement of nine of these vehicles would be open for competition.
This second phase covers fiscal 2016 to '22, with fiscal 2018 the key date to respond to congressional direction to move beyond dependence on the Russian engine with procurement of new systems, for launches between 2020 and 2024, Greaves said.
The last phase will be selecting providers for launches beginning in the late 2020s.
"All in all, today what we're doing is taking a major step in pursuing assured access to space for the nation within a competitive environment by pursuing a launch service approach," Greaves said.
Greaves said he expects proposals for one or both of the solicitations from the main competitors vying for Air Force space launches, the Boeing and Lockheed Martin combined team United Launch Alliance and startup SpaceX, which has been publicly vying for increased competition for national security launches while also providing launch services for NASA.
"The primary factor is competition, competition with the requirement that we have on us to procure launch services," Greaves said. "We do not procure launch hardware, we procure a launch service. … If Congress directed us to provide a drop-in replacement for the Atlas, we would do that."