Spaceflight Insider

ULA orders more Russian-built RD-180 rocket engines

RD-180_test_firing United Launch Alliance photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: ULA

United Launch Alliance (more commonly known as ULA) announced on Wednesday, Dec. 23, that it had placed an order for more of the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines used on the Atlas V family of rockets fielded by the Colorado-based firm. While these engines might aid ULA in delivering civil and commercial payloads to orbit, it is also likely to cause controversy.

A statement issued by ULA noted that these engines will be used in the interim as U.S.- based Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne produce their respective BE-4 and AR-1 rocket engines.

The BE-4 is currently planned to be the engine of choice for ULA’s Next Generation Launch System “Vulcan” rocket with the AR-1 being developed as a possible backup for the new launch vehicle.

According to ULA, this current batch of engines will help in what has been referred to as a “bridge contract” to help the firm, formed from elements of Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2006, bring new launch systems online.

The RD-180 was integrated into the Atlas booster through the engines’ manufacturer, Khimky, Russia-based NPO Energomash, and what was, at that time, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne (now Aerojet Rocketdyne).

In terms of the BE-4 and AR-1, each of these rocket engines must be properly developed and certified prior to their integration onto the Vulcan booster.

ULA has stated that the company wants to work toward a “smooth transition” from the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles toward the new Vulcan system.

In the meantime, ULA is forced to rely on the RD-180, a liquid oxygen and RP-1 (a highly refined version of kerosene) fueled engine that is derived from the RD-170 engine. Given their Russian origin, the nation’s 2014 military actions in Ukraine, and the fact that a spending bill – meant to increase NASA’s budget – included a measure to allow the RD-180 to once again be imported has not met with universal appeal.


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

How many engines did they buy? While this will help ULA get further contracts from U.S. government this will not help them once Spacex proves the reliability of its rockets.

I read that ULA ordered 20 engines.

As I understand it, it’s to help them transition to Vulcan. Gotta keep flying something so you can use the profits to fund development of your next rocket and cover operating costs, and Delta isn’t really commercially competitive. To put the engines in perspective, Supposedly there were 29 on order, this adds to make 49. If they average 12 Atlas V launches a year, it’s 4 years of engines, about when Vulcan should be coming online. So it’s pretty much a bridge-buy.

SpaceX is probably one of the best things to happen to ULA, because it creates the environment where “Stick with what works” as corporate policy can be challenged and overturned, and there is now a business case for serious investment in R&D and the sorts of things that drive down these costs.

Generally speaking, without a compelling reason (such as not getting pushed out of the market by a competitor), you’d be spending profits to make improvements and drive down costs, but your asking price is going to then lower so you probably won’t have a good enough return on investment to close the business case. And if it doesn’t make financial sense, most businesses won’t do it. Having a competitor changed that.

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