Back Into the Cold? Incoming Stratcom CinC Vows to Ditch the RD180 Rocket Engine

On September 20 North Korea, in the august presence of Kim Jong Un himself, tested a rocket engine as part of its space programme, and the test appears to be that of a new engine incorporating features that take North Korea’s space rocket- ballistic missile development programme beyond early generation Russian derived technology. For a long time Pyongyang’s development programme was bound by the inherit limitations of extrapolating from Scud technology, but that no longer appears to be the case.

The September 20 test is reportedly North Korea’s largest and most powerful engine test to date, and serves as another sign of growing North Korean strategic capabilities.

But I’m not gonna talk about that today, but I will get back to this I promise.

Rather I’d like to say a couple of things about the RD180, the Russian rocket engine used by the Atlas space launch vehicle to launch US satellites. There is a bit of irony here of course, as the Atlas in previous guise was an old American ICBM, Washington’s first.

The incoming chief of US Strategic Command, John Hyten, currently serving as commander of US Space Command, has recently stated to the Senate Armed Services Committee

“I pledge to continue to work with the Congress to make sure this nation ceases our reliance on the Russian RD-180 as soon as possible and never loses assured access to space,” Hyten, current US Space Command chief, stated.

The RD180 has a fascinating pedigree, tracing all the way back to the Russian moon programme. The RD180 has two combustion chambers, which share a single turbopump. The Soviet moon programme relied upon the clustering of many engines, and the single turbopump design was a key Soviet innovation.

With the RD180 powering the Atlas, rather than using the Delta SLV, the US is able to launch payloads, including military, to all manner of orbits in a relatively cost effective way. Earlier this year the Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter, stated to the Senate Appropriations Defense Committee

“We can hold our noses, buy RD-180s until that situation is created and fly Atlases with RD-180s. The alternative is to fly our payloads on Delta, which is technically feasible, but much more expensive. And so that is the choice. And we have chosen the choice of going Atlas, recognizing the distasteful fact that it necessitates purchases of up to 18 more RD-180 engines,”

The Russians have threatened to cut off supply, as political tensions mount, of the RD180 and the hawks in the US are keen to use the RD180 to place further economic pressure on Russia, through the cancellation of future orders.

After the cold war one of the more pleasing aspects of US-Russian rapprochement was growing space programme cooperation, it was often seen as a symbol of changed times, but as we head back to the dark days of yesteryear space cooperation may give way to renewed turbo charged space competition.

The fate of the RD180 fuelled Atlas might be a portent of things to come.

At the moment the Americans have to wear the RD180. From the article linked above (one carrying the Carter quote)

Tt would be dangerous to get rid of them right now, Loren B. Thompson and Constance Baroudos of the Lexington Institute underscore, adding that there are at least four reasons not to ban RD-180s right away.

Two of which are noteworthy

The much praised SpaceX rockets, which were recently certified for military launches, “can’t reach four of the eight critical military orbits.” It means that 40 percent of the Pentagon’s launches will have to go on much more expensive Deltas and again it will require billions of taxpayer dollars.

And

By banning the Russian RD-180 engines “too soon” Washington will shoot itself in the foot: “Any problems with Delta would leave the US with no way to get missile warning and spy satellites into orbit,” Thompson and Baroudos emphasize.

To watch what the Russians, and much else besides, are up to you need the RD180. Irony.

There is a lovely documentary on the RD180 and Soviet engine design, which I link below.