YHABFT: RD-180 Sales Ban Rumor, A-Com, and FY11 Budget Request HLV Propulsion

The RD-180 Sales Ban Rumor
As some of you probably saw on twitter last night, Russia Today ran a piece claiming that Russia was mulling a sales ban on the RD-180 rocket engine to the US (h/t Jeff Foust). For those of you not super-familiar with this engine, this is the LOX/RP-1 engine ULA uses on the first stage of their Atlas-V EELVs. The RD-180 is a pretty rock-star engine with a two combustion chamber, LOX-rich staged-combustion cycle and an eye-popping 311s SL Isp, that was derived from the four-chamber RD-170 engine used on the Zenit launch vehicles.

I’ll skip over a lot of the rest of the details, as Jeff’s Space Politics article and the RT article provide a lot more detail than I’d like to go into. It’s important to note is that this is still just a rumor that has yet to be corroborated by an independent source, and that even if it is true, ULA and P&W have enough of a stockpile that this won’t impact Atlas-V launches for at least another 2-3yrs.

That said, when I saw this article, it reminded me of one of the more mocked and derided parts of Obama’s NASA FY11 Budget Request, the proposed Heavy Lift Propulsion R&D effort, and the opportunity we lost by not pursuing the proposed FY11 strategy.

My Take on the Philosophy Behind the NASA FY11 Budget Request
When the Obama Administration released their FY11 Budget Request for NASA, it seemed to catch a lot of people off-guard, though my surprise was more that it seemed like the Obama administration had been reading my emails… I can’t state this for 100% certainty, and I won’t go into why I think this is the case, but I’m pretty sure I know what the actual logic was behind this and several of the other controversial elements in the FY11 budget proposal that took so many people by surprise.

Basically, I would summarize what I think was the core philosophy behind the FY11 budget request trying to dramatically increase NASA’s bang for the buck. By early 2010, it was clear that the massive increases in NASA’s budget necessary to do cool things using status quo approaches just weren’t politically realistic. So, the only way to give NASA a chance to do increasingly exciting and relevant things was to change the status quo and find some way to dramatically increase the bang-for-the-buck of NASA human spaceflight. The strategy taken in the FY11 budget to achieve this goal was to:

  1. Bet heavily on promising technology development and commercial space systems
  2. Hedge that bet in ways to keep some form of HLV viable in case the main bet doesn’t pan out
  3. Make sure that the bet hedging projects are still useful in case the main bet does pan out

The HLV Propulsion R&D effort was an example of strategy elements #2 and 3 above.

The HLV Propulsion R&D as “Bet Hedging”
Basically, if the cryogenic propellant depot, commercial crew, and advanced in-space propulsion investments panned out, a big new HLV would not be the most affordable/effective way to do manned space exploration and development. But if one or more of those either didn’t pan out, or was only marginal, some level of heavier lift than Delta-IVH might still be useful. In order to have a backup plan that could still enable exploration if the main technology bets didn’t pan out, the Obama Administration had proposed to focus significant funding between FY11-15 on developing a high-performance US LOX/Hydrocarbon engine–something as capable or better than the RD-180, and much more affordable than could have been done with status quo experience in LOX/Hydrocarbon engine technology at the time. That way, if it turned out down the road that some form of HLV really was the best way to do the launches for manned space exploration, we would now have an engine ready, and could incorporate it into whatever sized HLV made the most sense based on which of the various technologies bets panned out. For instance, from my recollections of talking with Jeff Greason at the time, what he meant by an “HLV” was actually something in the 40-50mT range with a large, high performance LOX/LH2 upper stage. Something like an Atlas V Phase 2 with an ACES upper stage would have fit the bill. An engine like the one the Obama administration proposed funding in the FY11 budget would have enabled anything from a vehicle that small all the way up to something Saturn-V class, without having to carry the full burdened cost of maintaining the Shuttle standing army–only the NASA-unique elements.

Preserving Grandfathered Infrastructure While Avoiding Legacy Costs
This expenditure would also have the benefit of keeping some key pieces of NASA infrastructure that would be hard to replace if we allowed them to be lost. As I think Jeff Greason pointed out (not sure if it was during the A-com or later), there is a lot of NASA infrastructure that would be hard if not impossible to replace these days due to the EPA. Things like the test stands at Stennis, the VAB, a lot of the pads at KSC, etc. We might not actually need them, but if we let them go and turn out to need them, we’re hosed. So picking some small projects like this and the 21st Century Launch Complex to try and keep the core NASA-unique and irreplaceable infrastructure viable in case we did need it down the road, seemed liked a good way to hedge bets.

And What if We Win?
Lastly, this expenditure would’ve been a good example of strategy point #3. Even if all of the other technologies panned out well, an investment in advanced HLV propulsion R&D wouldn’t have been a waste, and would likely have still been useful to the US space industry. An affordable US alternative to the RD-180 could be useful to US commercial, military, and civilian launch applications. If NASA didn’t need it for their HLV, ULA for instance could potentially incorporate it into their Atlas V to enable some consolidation of capabilities. While the engine likely wouldn’t have been as cheap as RD-180 (which apparently the Russians have accidentally been selling to us below their manufacturing costs), the savings from going to an Atlas V Phase 2 route which would eliminate the need for strapon boosters, might more than make up for it. Also, if NASA did decide it legitimately needed to build some sort of NASA-specific booster, a lot of the industrial base for that booster would’ve been shared by commercial, DoD, and NASA unmanned launches using that engine. Instead of needing to maintain several additional industrial bases that only NASA pays for.

Lost Opportunities
But unfortunately, because NASA wasn’t building an HLV right now, this was labeled as a delaying tactic, and “studying how to build an HLV”. I guess it was just hard for many Apollo-nostalgics to admit that NASA is about more than designing, building, and launching big unaffordable rockets, and that in the budget environment NASA is likely to be in for the foreseeable future, that NASA was more likely to be able to increase its bang-for-the-buck enough to do interesting things in its existing budget by focusing its investments on something other than big rockets.

Bringing this back to the original rumor, it’s kind of sad to realize that we have a potential threat of having one of our workhorse rockets being put out of commission because rocket scientists in the Congress decided that building a huge HLV using legacy hardware and retaining legacy fixed costs, which we won’t be able to afford to use very much, and can’t afford to develop payloads for, was more important than improving our US space industry’s technological capabilities.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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14 Responses to YHABFT: RD-180 Sales Ban Rumor, A-Com, and FY11 Budget Request HLV Propulsion

  1. Pete says:

    While it’s not the main point of the article, I don’t think we’re dealing with a rumor here. A rumor was something that I heard about some unspecified government entities might be doing something vague in order to effect the ban a few months ago. Today, this is fairly concrete action, collaborated by sources, albeit anonymous, in several government ministeries. We may be certain that Russian Federation Security Council (SovBez) solicited position statements from 4 stakeholders: MoD, Roskosmos, MinFin, and Ministery of Economic Development on the proposed ban. Roscosmos voted against, MoD unknown, MinFin unknown, MED against. The matter will now be entered into the SovBez agenda for a formal consideration, after which the decision will be shipped to Putin’s desk for a signature. It may yet come to a negative decision, e.g. keep the status quo, but it’s far through the “rumour” stage.

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Thanks Pete, that’s useful information. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. Russia is pretty pissticated at the US policy in Syria right now, so even though this is sort of a “cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face” sort of situation, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they did it.


  3. bill says:

    I just spent some time comparing the RD-180 and the F-1. The RD-180 has higher Isp, but the F-1 seems to have a slightly better thrust to weight ratio. There have also been talk of a F-1B variant which would have greater thrust and similar weight. Probably higher Isp than the original F-1. I enjoyed examining an F-1 engine at the Huntsville Space Center and was especially impressed at how relatively simple the F-1 actually was. It’s essentially a scaled up version of an H-1 or somesuch. It had a single turbo-pump with both the RP1 and LOX impellers driven off the same shaft.

    While not always true, simplicity in design is a blessing (at least if you’re trying to duplicate the effort later). I guess SpaceX has some thoughts on large engine design at this point, but I don’t know what they’re up to.

  4. A_M_Swallow says:

    The RD-180 has had its decade. Time to design a replacement.

  5. Neil Shipley says:

    The U.S. is apparently behind the Russians so far as rocket engine materials science and technology goes. They chose to buy rather than build. The only U.S. company to do the reverse is SpaceX and they’ve pretty much based their engines on the Russian designs. Their M1D is the most recent refined example both for parts numbers and ease of manufacture resulting in cost and performance improvements. Performance-wise is about a 50% thrust improvement, cost is rumoured to be even better.
    SpaceX is probably the most knowledgable company in the U.S. so far as rocket engine development goes now. They’ve developed from scratch: Kestrel, Merlin, Draco, Super-Draco, and rumour has it that they’re working on Raptor, a Methalox engine about 1.5 times the thrust of their M1D.

  6. Robert Clark says:

    I don’t see why you say the proposal to produce a heavy thrust hydrocarbon was unexpected or derided. Perhaps it was unexpected because the current administration made a wise proposal on space?
    But who would deride it? I remember many people felt it was overdue since we should not have let the F-1 go out of service. Many people also didn’t like the heavy lift vehicle using SRB’s and wanted to use heavy thrust engines on liquid fueled boosters or go back to the Saturn V type of a single core with heavy thrust engines.
    I myself also liked it because it raised the possibility of getting a fully reusable heavy lift vehicle. Remember NASA at the time was considering two different versions of a reusable heavy thrust kerosene engine.
    Perhaps the only people who might have derided it were the SRB supporters in Congress. They would be a minority of the people but unfortunately ones with a lot of power.

    Bob Clark

  7. Robert Clark says:

    In this cost constrained era NASA should consider the possibility of converting hydrogen fueled engines to hydrocarbon fueled. Converting the SSME’s should give us a reusable one. Converting the RS-68 should give us one of comparable thrust on the F-1.
    According to the highly regarded space historian Henry Spencer the RL-10 was already successfully tested using methane:


    It would be easier to do such a conversion to methane than to kerosene since methane is a cryogenic so has better cooling properties.

    Bob Clark

  8. Doug Jones says:

    The SSME has such low margins, and is so exquisitely optimized for hydrogen, that I seriously doubt if it could be converted to methane. The RL-10 version used for the methane & propane tests had 1/10 the chamber pressure of SSME. Kerosene is right out for the SSME. From personal experience, the coolant passages and injection orifices for hydrogen and kerosene have to be wildly different. The existing orifices in an SSME are so damn large that you couldn’t possibly get adequate cooling, and the injection elements likewise would not allow stable flow of kerosene. The fuel turbopumps are sized for a huge flow of low density cryo, not a smaller flow of 9x denser room temp liquid.

    No, a large booster engine *must* be designed from the outset to use a specific fuel. Atlas could get by with F-1B engines, and fortuitously NASA has recently been giving an old F-1 a fairly thorough re-engineering analysis.

  9. Robert Clark says:

    Actually, not. There have been studies on converting the SSME’s to hydrocarbon fueled that decided it could be done. I wrote the below to another forum in 2010 after looking up references to the issue. Some of the NASA links though are longer available after the restrictions placed on the NASA technical report server:

    Originally Posted by RGClark
    On another topic sure to create controversy 😉 , anyone know if there has been research on converting the shuttle main engines to hydrocarbon fueled? I was annoyed that NASA had earlier cancelled a program to develop a heavy-thrust hydrocarbon engine after the Ares I and V were chosen. We would have a reusable and man-rated heavy-thrust kerosene engine *now* if it weren’t for that.
    The SSME’s have to operate under severe tolerences using cryogenic hydrogen since the liquid hydrogen is so cold yet LH2/LOX burns at such high temperature. I would think using kerosene/LOX for instance would put less severe conditions on the engine operation.
    Note that other liquid hydrogen engines have been successfully run on other fuels under test conditions:

    The RL10 (Bruce Dunn; Gary Hudson; Henry Spencer)

    And some dense propellant engines have been tested to run on cryogenic hydrogen:

    LR-87 LH2

    Found this after searching on Astronautix.com:

    “Engine Model: RD-0120-CH. Manufacturer Name: RD-0120-CH. Designer: Kosberg. Propellants: Lox/LCH4. Thrust(vac): 1,576.000 kN (354,298 lbf). Isp: 363 sec. Mass Engine: 2,370 kg (5,220 lb). Chambers: 1. Chamber Pressure: 172.50 bar. Oxidizer to Fuel Ratio: 3.40. Thrust to Weight Ratio: 67.80. Country: Russia. Status: Design concept 1990’s.
    Proposed variant of the RD-0120 engine using liquid methane instead of hydrogen as propellant.”

    The RD-0120 was the hydrogen fueled engine used on the Russian Energia heavy lift booster, which lifted the Russian Buran space shuttle for instance. I can’t tell from this description though if it was actually tested with liquid methane or if these were only theoretical studies.
    After searching on the NASA Technical Report server I found some theoretical studies that suggest that the SSME could be converted to hydrocarbon-fueled at relatively low cost (compared to developing a new engine.)

    Booster engines derived from the Space Shuttle Main Engine.
    Sobin, A. J.; Poynor, S. P.; Cross, E
    “By using a majority of the current SSME engine components for the LOX/RE-1 booster engine, engine development time and cost can be significantly reduced compared to the development of a new engine.”
    Propulsion Conference, 13th, July 11-13, 1977, Orlando, FL
    http://ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?N=0&Ntk=all&Ntx=mode%20matchall&Ntt=19770059130 [abstract only]

    Tripropellant engine study.
    Wheeler, D. B.; Kirby, F. M.
    NASA-CR-150808; RI/RD78-215
    “The results of these studies have shown that the conversion of an SSME engine to a high chamber pressure, dual-mode fuel engine will require major modifications to the hardware and/or the addition of a significant number of new engine cowponents.
    However, the study has shown numerous possibilities for the use of SSME hardware derivatives in a single-mode LOX/hydrocaxbon engines. It was also shown that a reduced chamber pressure version of a staged combustion SSME is operationally feasible using the existing fuel-rich preburners and main chamber injectors. Certain turbomachinery modifications or additions are required for a total low chamber pressure ( 2300 psia) engine system. This study also has shown that the engine system concepts applicable to the dual-mode systems are somewhat narrowed since the operational constraints of two systems must be
    http://hdl.handle.net/2060/19780024238 [full text, 145 pages]

    Another possibility might be to adapt the hydrogen-fueled aerospike engines intended for the VentureStar to be hydrocarbon-fueled. This theoretical study from 1977 was on the possibility that an aerospike engine of the linear configuration later adopted for the VentureStar could be dual-fueled, i.e., running on both hydrocarbon and hydrogen:

    Linear aerospike engine study.
    Diem, H. G.; Kirby, F. M.
    NASA-CR-135231; RI/RD77-170
    http://hdl.handle.net/2060/19780003139 [full text, 246 pages]

    This would have the advantage that it would already have altitude compensation. If the dual-fuel modes are workable this would also increase performance.
    This study was primarily on dual-fuel operation but did also study hydrogen only operation. It might be useful to compare the predicted hydrogen only operation with the performance actually found with the aerospike engines created for the X-33 sub-scale demonstrator. If the measured performance does correspond to the predicted values that would give confidence that the dual-fuel version would also be close to the predicted values.

    Bob Clark

  10. Robert,
    I’m with Doug’s skepticism about changing SSME to LOX/HC being easy. Unlike Doug, I’ve only worked on LOX/Alcohol regen cooled engines (and relatively low pressure ones), but he’s designed, built, and test fired engines using a wide range of LOX/HC options (IPA, Kerosene, and Methane), and is currently doing LOX/LH2 work for ULA. So I wouldn’t just blow off his concerns. “Low cost” to NASA may mean “for only $4-5B”…


  11. Robert Clark says:

    Easy is a relative term. I have to believe it would be easier though than developing a whole new engine from scratch.

    Bob Clark

  12. Robert,
    Not necessarily at all. Clean sheet designs can often save you money if you’re trying to change things too dramatically. If you end up needing to redesign almost all of the most complex parts, what has it really saved you to “start with” a very unrelated design?


  13. Robert Clark says:

    OK. But it’s not just my opinion. It’s also the opinion of the engineers who conducted those studies on converting the SSME.
    A good comparison point would be the actual conversions that did take place on the RL-10. I severely doubt it cost anywhere near the entire development cost of the RL-10 itself.

    Bob Clark

  14. Robert Clark says:

    In case anyone is interested in reading them, the full-text reports I mentioned in comment #9 are now accessible on the NASA Technical Report server.

    Bob Clark

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