Main Engine Cut Off

House Members Ask Air Force to Fund Vehicles, Not Components

Jeff Foust, for SpaceNews:

In the letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, dated April 10, the members said the Air Force should continue efforts to develop “complete, robust launch systems” rather than focus on specific components, such as an engine to replace the Russian-built RD-180. That approach, they argued, is the best way to end reliance on the RD-180 while providing assured access to space at reduced cost.

This bit of the full letter (PDF, 1.8MB) is really interesting:

In its budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the Air Force requested $1.2 billion across five years to invest in domestic launch systems. The end goal of these investments is two long-term domestic, commercially viable launch providers that meet national-security space requirements.

Saying the end goal is to develop two launch vehicles doesn’t mean the Air Force is only giving out two contracts. They could—and probably should—award more than two contracts, so that they can still meet their goal even if one or more contenders fail for any reason.

It would be a huge shock if ULA doesn’t win a contract for Vulcan. If and when ULA formally selects the BE-4, AR1 will be left out in the cold after winning a contract in the previous round.

Orbital ATK is pretty confident they’ll win a contract for their completely-uninspiringly-named Next-Generation Launch Vehicle. NASA and the Department of Defense have a vested interest in keeping Orbital ATK around, so I’m expecting to see a contract headed their way in this round. The last Air Force contract included funding for development of an extendable nozzle for the BE-3U, which NGL would likely use on its upper stage.

Blue Origin wouldn’t put themselves in the running for this contract—they don’t need the money or the constraints and distractions that would come with this contract. But it’s extremely likely that both of their engines are part of the launch vehicles funded.

That leaves us with SpaceX. In the last round, they received funding for development of the Raptor engine:

This other transaction agreement requires shared cost investment with SpaceX for the development of a prototype of the Raptor engine for the upper stage of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles.

I see two ways SpaceX could get a contract this time around.

They could propose a new variant of the Falcon family with a Raptor-powered upper stage. The upper stage would probably be fully-reusable, since that seems to be coming back into favor.

Or, way less likely, they go for the Hail Mary pass and propose something in the realm of ITS development. That wouldn’t necessarily fit the EELV designation, unless they proposed a scaled-down version or something of that sort, but SpaceX is known for the unexpected.

Elon Musk did say that SpaceX will be releasing updated plans for the ITS soon, so maybe we’ll see something in there that could fit with this Air Force initiative.