Thoughts on the RD-180, Senator McCain and Unicorns

The hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 27, 2016 did not disappoint. Senator McCain came out strong against Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall with what can be characterized as a verbal flogging. Doubtless, Senator McCain is doubly stung by ULA declining to bid on the recent GPS-III RFP and having his restrictions on the RD-180 undone at the eleventh hour by a drop-in provision in the 2016 omnibus bill, which invalidated those restrictions.

During his opening statement, Senator McCain announced he was introducing a bill, which would remove the provision from the 2016 omnibus spending bill that allows continued purchases of RD-180 engines for national security missions. Notably, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California announced a similar bill in the House. Beyond his opening statement, Senator McCain took on the role of prosecutor and judge and entered into a line of questioning of both Ms. James and Mr. Kendall that appeared designed to elicit answers that Senator McCain wanted to hear instead of pertinent responses. Of course, Senator McCain’s demeanor was not surprising as he has passionately led the charge against the RD-180 since he regained his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Fortunately, beyond Senator McCain’s inquiry of Ms. James and Mr. Kendall, other members of the Committee asked salient questions and appeared generally concerned not only about our reliance on the RD-180, but also about banning it before a viable replacement is ready. It is here where Senator McCain disconnects because he is under the belief or wants to believe that a replacement engine can designed, built, tested and integrated on the Atlas V by 2019. This is problematic because only in rare circumstances can a new engine be grafted onto an existing launcher without substantial modification. Yet, Senator McCain appears either not to understand this or does not want to understand.

More to the point, the insistence on a replacement engine also ignores ULA has invested in the development of the Blue Origin BE-4 and the Aerojet/Rocketdyne AR-1 with its own funds. During one discussion about possible replacement engines, Senator McCain noted that Blue Origin was developing a reusable rocket engine, but he he did not mention ULA is privately funding the development of the BE-4 engine along with Blue Origin. Whether this omission was from lack of knowledge, inadvertent or deliberate is unclear, but this fact flies in the face of the logic of Senator McCain’s quest for a mythical rocket engine to appear by 2019 to replace the RD-180.

Developing a replacement engine is a large undertaking and will come at cost in terms of time and expense. Contrary to the comparison of the effort to the develop the Saturn V offered by Senator McCain, developing a new engine is not easy. The F-1 for instance, which Senator McCain appeared to allude to, was already on the drawing board for the Air Force, declined by the service because of expense, and adopted and developed through a concerted effort and funding by NASA for the Apollo program.

The fact not lost on most members of the Committee is that replacing the RD-180 engine and a launcher that has become vital to national security is not something that will happen overnight nor will it be cheap.  That recognition may play out for a more even-keeled approach to the RD-180 when it comes to voting on the legislation sponsored by Senator McCain. As noted by Senator Reed at the end of the hearing, the United States needs to get off the RD-180, but it needs to do it smartly. Heeding Senator Reed’s words, ‘doing it smartly’ does not mean banning the engine outright or restricting its use by a politically-generated number until a replacement comes online.

Surely the Russians will benefit somewhat from the continued purchase of RD-180s but not so much as to benefit Putin and his cronies to the extent Senator McCain appears to believe. More to the point, as good capitalists, there is little threat the Russians will renege on contracts or sabotage future engines. Admittedly, relying on engines from a geopolitical rival is distasteful, but we have to take our medicine for a little while longer until the next generation of launchers are ready. Until then, it is better we admit we need to take our medicine for a time instead of allowing politics to steer us into expending time, money and resources hunting unicorns.

The play back of the hearing can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv715sL9KOU

 

 

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