Rocket failure could hasten development of alternatives

The Antares rocket destroyed in a fireball off a Virginia launchpad could speed efforts by the U.S. space industry to end its reliance on Russian-made engines, Boeing Co.’s defense chief says.

“It re-emphasizes the need to not just be dependent upon one engine provider,” Chris Chadwick, who runs Boeing’s defense, space and security unit, said Thursday. “It’s time to energize the playing field and see what we can do to get competition in that arena and bring a next-generation engine into the forefront of the launch business.”

Development of alternative technology in the U.S. is “probably overdue,” Chadwick said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington. The U.S. Air Force and contractors such as Boeing-backed United Launch Alliance are working on homegrown alternatives to the imported engines.

While investigators study the Oct. 28 accident, the failure has refocused attention on Soviet-era liquid-fuel engines powering many U.S. rockets. The Orbital Sciences Corp. mission had a derivative of the NK-33 engine used for the Russian N-1 rocket on an early 1970s lunar mission.

“Coming up with new engines is a very expensive proposition,” Marco Caceres, director of space studies at Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group, said Oct. 29 in a telephone interview. “That was probably one of the reasons the Russian engine was so attractive.”

Space is a growth area for Boeing, whose partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration dates to the Mercury program starting in the late 1950s. It’s also a point of emphasis for Chadwick, who was named chief executive officer of the $33.2 billion-revenue defense unit in December.

Boeing intends to bid on a new NASA contract to fly cargo missions to the International Space Station, Chadwick said, after winning a $4.2 billion deal to ferry astronauts to the orbiting laboratory. Orbital shares the current supply work with billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

Boeing’s commercial-crew flights also will use Russian-made engines, the RD-180, for the Atlas V rockets manufactured by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture.

The alliance’s dependence on the Russian engine, whose availability came into question as tensions simmered over Ukraine earlier this year, has also provided an opening to Musk in his challenge to traditional space titans like Boeing.

Musk’s SpaceX is developing a rival rocket and spacecraft, and received $2.6 billion of work under the commercial crew contract. The launch alliance is getting help from its own billionaire entrepreneur: It’s working with billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin on a new rocket engine.

Musk and Bezos are bringing “disruptive ideas” to the space market with ventures rooted in Silicon Valley, Chadwick said. “It ensures that we stay on our toes.”

Chadwick said he is trying to instill the technology industry’s speed and unconventional thinking in 98-year-old Boeing as his unit confronts shrinking defense budgets and an aircraft lineup nearing the end of its production life.

Boeing has more than “50-50 chance” of receiving enough U.S. Navy and foreign orders to keep the F/A-18 fighter line open beyond its potential 2017 closing date, Chadwick said.

Chadwick said Boeing also expects to have its last eight C-17 military transports sold in 2015, “at the latest.”

“We’ve got some very good dialogue” with prospective C-17 customers around the world, Chadwick said. The production line for one of the Air Force’s workhorse cargo planes is slated to close in mid-2015, Boeing said in April.

On the $51 billion KC-46 tanker program, “we’re still on plan for first flight” by a prototype by year’s end, Chadwick said. The company is on schedule for an August 2015 initial production decision and “still on target to deliver 18 full-up tankers” as required by August 2017, he said.

Chadwick said a revision of Boeing’s integrated master schedule for the tanker project won’t affect that primary milestone: delivery of combat-ready tankers equipped to carry more than 212,000 pounds (96,000 kilograms) of aviation fuel and operate at altitudes as high as 43,000 feet (13,000 meters).

“We'll know fairly soon” about how the Air Force will proceed with a replacement of the presidential aircraft fleet, Chadwick said. The service is nearing an announcement on its acquisition strategy and the types of competition that may be required, he said.

Since 1962, Boeing has built the planes designated as Air Force One. The current aircraft, which are modified Boeing 747 jumbo jets, were designed with 1960s analog technology and will reach their planned 30-year service life in 2017, the Air Force has said.