A proposed U.S. rocket engine similar to the iconic Apollo-era F-1 could replace the Russian technology found on many American military boosters, according to the firms behind its design.
What's more, it could be compatible with both Pentagon and NASA rockets, so the same propulsion system that may someday send astronauts to Mars could also be used to launch military and spy satellites, they say.
The new engine, a liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled system known as the AR-1, would be smaller than the F-1 that powered the Saturn V rocket, but have higher performance and provide some 500,000 pounds of thrust, according to Steve Cook, director of corporate development at Huntsville, Alabama-based Dynetics, which has partnered with Aerojet Rocketdyne to design the technology.
"Imagine taking a big old F-1 and being able to put it in a much more compact unit and get much more performance out of it," he said in a telephone interview.
Under a contract for a program called Advanced Booster Engineering Demonstration and Risk Reduction, engineers at Dynetics in October 2012 began working on ways to lower risk - and thus cost - associated with building a future first-stage engine for the NASA's Space Launch System, the rocket designed to carry astronauts to the moon, asteroids and eventually Mars.
The SLS will use solid rocket engines left over from the space shuttle and may transition to LOX-kerosene systems. NASA in 2011 retired the shuttle and currently relies on Russia for rides to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz rockets at almost $70 million per seat.
Last year, at NASA's request, Dynetics expanded the work to include modifying the design to also serve as a possible replacement to the Russian-made RD-180, used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas V in the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.
Rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the latter's invasion and subsequent annexation of the Ukraine's Crimea region earlier this year has drawn calls from some lawmakers and officials to end American reliance on Russia for access to space.
While Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has said deliveries of the RD-180 engine continue without interruption, she is also exploring ways to fund the development of a potential replacement - and trying to open national-security launches to competition. The market is currently dominated by a Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture called United Launch Alliance LLC, which makes the Atlas V and Delta IV family of boosters.
In the 1990s, with the shuttle making regular trips to the space station, domestic investment in LOX-hydrocarbon booster technology fell off dramatically, Cook said. "We basically outsourced it to the Russians," he said.
If the Air Force decides to move forward with a similar risk-reduction and technology development program as NASA, a prototype of the AR-1 could be ready in 2-1/2 years and "get to a full-up operational engine by 2019," Cook said.
Other companies such as SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corp., Blue Origin and, of course, the incumbent, ULA, will likely vie for any new government funding or program to develop a successor engine.