Beyond the RD-180

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  • It is not clear that there is a viable strategy currently in place to guide the acquisition of national security space launch going forward.
  • Policymakers must consider a range of factors, such as schedule, cost, technical risks, and the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. space launch industrial base.
  • The U.S. government should position itself to support and reap the benefits of the expected growth of the global space launch market.

This report explores how the United States came to depend on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine as part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, realistic options for the engine’s replacement in the coming decade, and potential space launch acquisition strategies for the future. The first section provides an overview of the history of the development and evolution of EELV, including the early origins of both the RD-180 and the EELV program, as well as the EELV acquisition strategy, the creation of the United Launch Alliance, and the entry of other private competitors to the launch market. The second section discusses the more recent controversy over the RD-180 in the U.S. Congress after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, including recent efforts to cap the number of Russian engines that U.S. companies can acquire. The third section describes five options to transition from the RD-180 that could be implemented within several years. These options include the oft-cited “drop-in replacement” option, using new engines on new launch systems and using currently available alternative launch vehicles. The last section discusses planning for the future of space launch acquisition. This discussion includes: challenges to the current strategy, the major considerations in developing a renewed acquisition strategy, and a few specific examples of what a new national security space launch acquisition strategy could look like.

While the details for how and when the RD-180 will be replaced are not yet settled, the consensus within the U.S. Congress and executive branch remains that the United States must end its reliance on the RD-180. This report explains the impetus for finding an alternative engine, explores the options that are available going forward, and describes the challenges that will be placed on the federal government and the private sector in doing so.


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