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Orbital Sciences is scrambling to find a reliable long term first stage engine for its Antares rocket.
The NK-33 engine that powered Antares’ first flight was built decades ago by Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau and is no longer in production. Further, Orbital is uncertain about the quality of Aerojet’s remaining stockpile of 23 NK-33s, beyond those set aside for NASA’s CRS-1. Aerojet Rocketdyne is Orbital’s primary subcontractor and overhauls the old NK-33 engines into a configuration for Antares, dubbed AJ-26. Orbital officials say its only current alternative is the RD-180 engine made in Russia by NPO Energomash. But the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operates the U.S. Air Force’s Atlas V and Delta IV fleets, holds exclusive rights in the U.S. to buy the RD-180.
Over the last four years, Orbital has inquired about purchasing the RD-180 from ULA, RD Amross and Energomash. “We could never get to first base on that,” says Michael Hamel, the company’s senior vice president of corporate strategy and development. Requests for support from the Air Force, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress were also met with silence, company officials say.
What I find disturbing about this story is the complete lack of effort by Orbital, Aerojet, or ULA to build their own engines. Even if new NK-33 engines are made by Aerojet, they will be manufactured in Russia, as are ULA’s engines. Why can’t they do what SpaceX has done and make their own engines?