How 3D printing could help replace Russian rockets

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As the Pentagon looks to develop a replacement for the Russian engine that blasts the Atlas V rocket into orbit, two U.S. companies have been working on a little-known project that could speed up the process.

Dynetics, of Huntsville, Ala., and Aerojet Rocketdyne, of Sacramento, Calif., are already building a replacement engine that could power the Atlas V for military launches and future NASA manned space launches. Much of the engine has been built using a 3D printing technique known as additive manufacturing.

“Additive manufacturing is going to be one of the biggest cost- and time-savers on this engine,” said Steve Cook, director of corporate development at Dynetics told Defense One. The team has built a key rocket engine part, known as the pre-burner, with a new manufacturing process for this type of part. What typically takes 15 months, Cook said, they did in 15 days.

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Additive manufacturing could save substantial time and money in engine development, but the technology is still unproven, said Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at the Teal Group consulting firm. “Right now, what the Air Force needs with regard to a new engine is precisely that, to save a lot of time and money,” he said.

Dynetics and Aerojet Rocketdyne have been working on the project for two years, long before the replacement of the RD-180 became part of the common vernacular in defense circles.

The U.S. Air Force launches many of the military’s communications, reconnaissance and navigation satellites on the massive Atlas V rocket. The powerful and reliable RD-180 engine blasts the Atlas V rocket during the boost phase, the first four minutes-or-so during launch. The engine and booster then disconnect and a second engine, the RL-10, propels the payload into space. Aerojet Rocketdyne makes the RL-10.

Still, this has prompted the White House, Pentagon and Congress to support a project to build a U.S.-made RD-180 replacement. Members of Congress on both sides of the political aisle have unified in their support for a replacement engine. Last month, 19 lawmakers sent a letter to President Barack Obama pushing for an RD-180 replacement by 2019.

Congress recently blessed a Pentagon request to realign $40 million for the replacement engine effort.

In August, the Air Force asked rocket engine companies to send in thoughts on how it should go about replacing the Russian RD-180. Pentagon officials are now figuring out how to move forward.