Bellingham, Wash., 12 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The days of commercial success enjoyed by Soviet-era rockets in thrusting the world's satellites into orbit may be drawing to an end.
Here's why: The Boeing Company, the giant U.S. aerospace and airplane-manufacturing concern, is now testing a new hydrogen-powered rocket engine, the RS-68. The new engine was designed from the start not for the military, but for the rapidly growing commercial market for satellite launching vehicles.
Project spokesman Dan Beck of Boeing says the RS-68 is designed to be reliable, cheap and quick to build, and simple to operate. Beck says it is also the first large, liquid-fueled rocket engine developed in the United States in a generation.
The RS-68 is to power the Delta Four rocket system, whose initial launch is scheduled for early in 2001, Beck says. It will replace Boeing's existing Delta rocket systems -- the Delta Two and the Delta Three.
It will be the Delta Four, Beck predicts, that will likely spell trouble for Ukraine's currently popular, heavy-lifting Zenit rocket powered by its kerosene-fueled RD-180 engine. Ukraine inherited the Zenit stockpile as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union.
So far, Zenits have found steady and lucrative work abroad doing the heavy lifting for commercial launch vehicles. The rockets have been a major moneymaker for Ukraine. Zenit customers include Boeing's aerospace competitor, Lockheed Martin Corporation, but also Boeing itself.
Boeing uses the Zenit to power its new oceangoing Sea Launch operation, based in Southern California. Sea Launch is an international, mobile launching venture whose partners include Ukraine's KB Yuzhnoye/Po Yuzhmash and Russia's RSC-Energia. The Ukraine partner provides the first two booster stages of the launch vehicle; the Moscow-based partner provides the upper stage booster and its integration with the launch vehicle itself.
In contrast to Boeing's RS-68, however, the Zenit rocket system is a product of the Cold War. Thus, it is a system designed to carry out Cold War space missions. Though the Zenit's RD-180 engine is reliable and powerful, Boeing believes that the Zenit will lose its current low-cost advantage once its current stock of engines is depleted and new models must be designed, developed and built.
Byron Wood is the general manager of the Boeing Rocketdyne subsidiary that is building the new engine at its plant in the Los Angeles suburb of Canoga Park. Wood says: "We fully expect that once these so-called cheap assets are expended, they will be more expensive than ours."
Dan Beck, the Boeing project's spokesman, says the RS-68 engine has already generated more lifting power than the Zenit or any other rocket. It does this, Beck says, with only one-tenth of the parts that went into the same company's engine used to power the Space Shuttle.
Beck says today's commercial and government satellites are getting bigger and heavier. That requires more powerful launch vehicles, like Boeing's Delta Four with its RS-68 rocket engine.
Boeing acquired the initial technology for the rocket engine a few years back when it bought Rockwell International and its Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power subsidiary. Rocketdyne is the nation's largest builder of rocket engines and controls about half the current market.
Beck says Boeing's ability to put all these formerly separate resources together moved the rocket project along much faster than would have been the case under an independent Rockwell.
He says Boeing was willing to invest in research and development to do the project the right way. Beck says the increased resources will produce a finished rocket system in about half the time that it took Rocketdyne to produce the Space Shuttle's current, highly reliable rocket engine.
The stakes in this competition are high. Some estimates put the market for building and launching commercial and government satellites at more than $60 billion.