The American rocket of the 21st century may well feature Russian engine developed in the 1970s.
On Monday, the Air Force is scheduled to pick two companies to compete for the final stage of a $2 billion program to replace its fleet of unmanned boosters.
The idea is to cut launch costs almost in half by junking three separate rockets now used -- the medium-lift Atlas and Delta and heavy-lift Titan -- in favor of one family of boosters.
The resulting rocket might also help the U.S. eat into the 70 percent market share Europeans now enjoy in the commercial launch business.
Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp. has what is widely considered the leading entry in the race. And it features a Russian engine -- the RD-180, the descendant of a monstrous unit developed for the Soviet space shuttle.
It's proven. It's cheap. And it's better, many experts say, than anything the United States now has.
"I'm actually surprised there are not more Russian engines being proposed," said Marco Caceres, a space analyst for the Teal Group.
Russian engines have always been the best thing about that country's space program, Caceres said. With cruder materials technology, Russian space hardware is heavier than that of the West. So they had to have more powerful engines to get things aloft.
Lockheed Martin can capitalize on the years since the early 1970s when the Soviets invested in engine design and the U.S. spent a mere pittance. Lockheed can also count on its own years of experience building Atlas and Titan rockets. It just puts the two together.
"That ain't rocket science; that's welding," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists.
Developing a new rocket engine is extremely costly business. Since the early 1970s, the U.S. has opened that door only a handful of times, and those efforts came to quick ends -- the
National Launch System was canceled in 1991 and the Spacelifter fizzled in 1993.
Congress ordered the Air Force in 1994 to come up with a cheaper way of launching satellites, and the Pentagon decided it couldn't afford to buy something really new. Instead, it ordered up proposals for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle -- a rocket evolved from existing Atlas, Delta and Titan technology.
Of the four industry teams that each won $30 million last year to prepare entries for the EELV, only Lockheed Martin saw what Pike says is a clear advantage in going Russian:
"It basically means we're getting a new launch vehicle without having to spend all the money to get a new engine," he said.
And there's another plus: "This is giving Russian rocket folks something to do besides all moving to North Korea or Libya," Pike said.
A team led by McDonnell Douglas Corp. took what at first glance appears to be a more logical approach than running into the arms of America's former adversary. They're designing their own new engines.
But in this paradoxical age of tight budgets and loose borders, that may be a handicap, some experts say.
Creating a new engine "I really don't think is going to happen," said Charles Vick, another space expert with the Federation of American Scientists. Research and development costs would be prohibitive, he said.
And both the McDonnell Douglas design and the one put forward by Boeing Co., which uses two Space shuttle engines, "would wreak havoc on existing launch facilities," Vick said.
Alliant Techsystems of Utah is the fourth entrant in the race, and its rocket is the only one featuring all solid fuel. Vick discounts RTC that entry, too, noting that current solid-fueled Titan rockets have simply been too unreliable.
But Wolfgang Demisch, a defense analyst for B. T. Securities in New York, favors the Alliant entry expressly because it continues evolving the solid fuel technology used on the Titans.
Ranking Alliant as a logical, evolutionary step, then, Demisch would handicap McDonnell Douglas as the favorite for the second slot -- a radical alternative to give the Pentagon something for contrast.
Also in McDonnell Douglas' favor is the extraordinary record of its current Delta II rocket. Its 49 launches without a failure is a current world record.
For other experts, though, Lockheed Martin's Russian-powered entry is the only logical choice.
"You're just getting a big bang for your buck here," said the Teal Group's Caceras.
And it would be hard to overstate the need for economy in this program. The Air Force is looking to cut the cost of an unmanned rocket launch by as much as half. The heavy-lift Titan IV rocket, for instance, currently costs about $350 million per launch. Caceras estimates the EELV version could go up for $200 million.
Instead of maintaining three armies of technicians to launch three separate rockets built on three separate assembly lines, a single booster program could provide enormous economies of scale. Fold in the potential for using the EELV to feed the voracious commercial space industry, and some experts see a truly awesome program.
But Demisch, for one, is not convinced it will survive. "That's still not going to be a cheap set of boosters to get off the ground," he said.
Dave Radzanowski, a space analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said he thinks Congress is committed to the program -- as long as it stays within its relatively tight $2 billion total budget.
"Congress has concern with the current launch vehicles being extremely expensive," Radzanowski said. "And anything to reduce those costs I think they see as a great idea."
A win for Lockheed Martin when the single builder is picked in 1998 would give the world's biggest defense company a virtual monopoly on yet another field. Already churning out Atlas and Titan rockets under contracts that run through the turn of the century, Lockheed Martin earlier this year won the race to build the X-33, which one day will replace the Space Shuttle.
Pub Date: 12/13/96