|DoD gives Raptor project a boost
Contracts from the military to continue work on next generation propulsion systems to
replace Russian engines provide a boost to commercial space efforts...
STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss. -- The development of the Raptor methane rocket
engine received a sizeable boost in January when the Air Force awarded a $33.6
million contract to Space Exploration Technologies Corp., SpaceX.
The contract is to develop Raptor for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle
(EELV), a program started in the 1990s to assure U.S. access to space for the
Department of Defense and other federal agencies.
Called “an other” transaction agreement, it’s used instead of a standard procurement
contract to leverage on-going investments by industry. It requires SpaceX and the Air
Force to share costs in development of a prototype of the Raptor for the upper stage
of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. SpaceX is contributing $67.3
million at the time of the award, with a potential investment of $122.8 million. The total
potential government investment is $61.4 million.
At the heart of the SpaceX award and a companion $47 million contract to Orbital
ATK of Magna, Utah, for development of three propulsion systems for EELV, is the
requirement of the 2015 Defense Authorization Act to transition from Russian-built
RD-180 engines for National Security launches.
But the significance of the awards goes well beyond the military’s EELV program. It
will have an impact on other commercial space ventures, including SpaceX’s
ambitions plans to create a launch vehicle designed to eventually colonize Mars. The
Raptor engines play a key role there. And the Gulf Coast is playing a major role.
SpaceX, the first commercial company to successfully fly cargo to the International
Space Station (ISS), announced in October 2013 that it would use NASA’s John C.
Stennis Space Center (SSC), Miss., for R&D on its Raptor engine. In April 2014
SpaceX cut the ribbon on its test stand at SSC. Since then, it’s been testing
components for the Raptor. In a typical week SpaceX conducts multiple tests.
The decision to use SSC hitched the Gulf Coast to one of the most ambitious
commercial space companies. SpaceX’s projects include sending supplies to the ISS,
and eventually astronauts. It’s also involved in the military’s EELV program, and is
creating new spaceships that will take colonists to Mars. In December 2015 it marked
a major milestone when its Falcon 9 made a vertical landing at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
That, along with an earlier vertical landing by a suborbital Blue Origin craft promise to
make reusable launch vehicles a reality. That would greatly reduce the cost of all
The Raptor is key to SpaceX’s future endeavors. It can be used for both the upper
and core stage of launch vehicles. A cluster of nine will be used on the core stage of
the planned Mars Colonial Transporter. The Raptors use of methane as a fuel is
crucial since methane can be synthesized on Mars.
SpaceX had to fight to get involved in the EELV. The program’s goal since its
inception has been to make government space launches more affordable. It led to
the creation of United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing and Lockheed venture, which
makes the Delta IV and Atlas V launch systems used to lift U.S. military satellites. The
Delta IV booster is powered by Rocketdyne RS-68 engines tested at SSC, and the
Atlas V booster uses RD-180 engines.
In late 2012 DoD announced a re-opening of the EELV launch vehicle market. Under
the new plan there was a bloc buy of up to 36 launch cores from ULA, while opening
another 14 cores to be purchased competitively.
The vertical landings of Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 promise
to have implications for the EELV program.
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