America has not been idle in rocket engine development over the past 20 years. Today we produce several advanced engines — the RS-68 engine for the Delta IV rocket; the RL-10 upper stage engine for Atlas and Delta IV; and refurbished RS-25s for Space Launch System. The Merlin engine for Falcon launch vehicles is a relatively small hydrocarbon engine derived from an older U.S. technology that is not as efficient as current-generation oxidizer-rich staged combustion (ORSC) engines like the 30-year-old RD-180. ORSC engines offer performance advantages significantly affecting launch vehicle design, operations and safety, and provide spacecraft designers with a better launch environment.
These advantages can be maintained by developing a new advanced liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine produced in the United States. This new engine could be the replacement engine for updated Atlas, Delta, Antares and Falcon launch vehicles, power strap-on boosters for SLS, and enable future low cost reusable launch systems. By utilizing the engine across launch vehicles, efficient rate production can assure affordability for all. Such an advanced engine can be developed and in production in under four years.
The first building block of a national space program is the powerful, affordable, efficient and safe first-stage liquid-fueled rocket engine that sits under it. An advanced large OSRC hydrocarbon-fueled engine — all-American designed and built — is easily within our reach. We should build it now to assure the continued availability of economic and national security benefits derived from access to space.
Mark Albrecht served as executive secretary of the White House National Space Council and president of Lockheed Martin International Launch Services. Don Kerr served as the principal deputy director of National Intelligence and director of the National Reconnaissance Office.