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Air Force to Team with Rocket Makers on New Engine

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The U.S. Air Force wants to partner with rocket makers -- not engine manufacturers -- in developing a new propulsion system that could replace Russian-made technology used on existing boosters, officials said.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, on Thursday at the Space Symposium discussed plans for the so-called public-private partnership to develop a new American-made rocket engine.

The service wants to award contracts to multiple firms to develop potential alternatives to the RD-180 engine, James said. The Russian design is made by NPO Energomash and used as a first-stage engine on the Atlas booster in the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program -- an arrangement that has drawn scrutiny in the wake of Russian military involvement in the Ukraine.

"We would fund a number of launch service providers who would then start developing engine alternatives," the secretary said. "They would, as part of this procedure, agree to make available to others whatever they develop in the way of a new engine."

She added, "The idea being that we would use government money for a number of companies, but they would have to put some of their own money in, as well."

James didn't specify when the Air Force may ink the deals -- or how much of an investment the private sector would be expected to make.

The service expects to release a request for information about the acquisition effort sometime this year. Congress in December authorized $220 million to begin developing a replacement to the RD-180 as part of a massive spending bill called the Omnibus Appropriations Act. The legislative language specifies a "target demonstration date of fiscal year 2019."

After the development of viable alternatives, the Air Force would pick one or two launch systems, including both the engine and the rocket, James said. "You have to have both," she said. "There's no such thing ... as a plug-and-play engine."

Hyten added that the industry partners in the arrangement will be with launch service providers, not engine manufacturers.

"Everybody thinks the partners got to be the engine manufacturers," he said. "No, the partnership has to be the launch service providers. They have to decide that, 'Yes, I want to partner with the government with an engine that I want to build a rocket around.'"

Hyten added, "You have to make sure that there is a rocket for the engine, so the key element ... is with the launch service provider."

It wasn't immediately clear how this may impact United Launch Alliance LLC, currently the sole supplier of Atlas and Delta rockets in the Air Force's EELV program, or potential new entrants such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk.

SpaceX famously builds its rockets, engines and other components in-house -- a process that Musk and other company officials have said keeps costs down and allows the company to sell Falcon 9 launches relatively cheaply. A call to a company spokesman wasn't immediately returned.

ULA earlier this week unveiled plans for a new rocket, called Vulcan, which would use a new and privately funded BE-4 engine made by Blue Origin LLC, owned by Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has questioned the need for government funding to build a new engine.

ULA, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is also considering using the new AR-1 engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne as a back-up for the Vulcan, which was estimated to be ready by 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne supports a government effort to develop a new propulsion system. A call to a ULA spokeswoman wasn't immediately returned.

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