The Air Force is joining the race to bring back American rocket superiority
For the last decade, Russian-made engines have been propelling US national security satellites into space.
While this has proven to be a good approach in the past, the time has come for a new breed of rocket engine that's American-made.
On Feb. 29, the US Air Force — who runs the national security launch missions — announcedthat it will invest up to $738 million to put an end to America's reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines.
RD-180 engines currently power the Atlas V rocket, which is owned and run by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) aerospace company.
And over the last 10 years, the Atlas V has helped ferry expensive and sensitive national security payloads into space for the Air Force.
But in recent years, as political tensions grew between the US and Russia, ULA's use of the RD-180 engines has come under fire.
After the Crimean crisis in 2014,Congress called to permanently terminate the Air Force's reliance on Russian-made rocket engines by building a program that would see functional, American-made rocket engines by the end of 2019.
Now is the right time
As part of its announcement on Feb. 29, the Air Force said it will award ULA up to $202 million, which will go toward the construction of ULA's new Vulcan rocket — scheduled to launch for the first time in 2019.
Vulcan is expected to run on rocket engines designed and constructed by the American aerospace company Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
But Blue Origin isn't the only company working on taking back America's role as a leader in rocket propulsion systems.
In direct competition is the rocket propulsion manufacturer company Aerojet Rocketdyne, which just got a major vote of confidence.
The rest of that $738 million the Air Force is willing to invest — which equates to a whopping $536 million — was dedicated to Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Right now, Aerojet is constructing its AR1 rocket engine, which the company says could be used to propel the Atlas V, Vulcan, as well as other rockets currently under development.
While ULA has contracted with Blue Origin to build its BE-4 rocket engines for the Vulcan rocket, ULA also has a contract with Aerojet, as back up.
If Blue Origin's efforts to build the BE-4 rocket engine falter, then ULA will turn to Aerojet's AR1 to power the Vulcan.
ULA and Aerojet have until Dec. 31, 2019 to design, build, and test its new engines.
"While the RD-180 engine has been a remarkable success with more than 60 successful launches, we believe now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine," Tory Bruno, ULA's president and chief executive officer, said in a release.