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Air Force Funds 3-D Printing Study for Rocket Engines

Mike Gruss | Space News

Air Force Funds 3-D Printing Study for Rocket Engines

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force awarded the Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering a $545,000 contract to study additive manufacturing techniques to make cooling chambers for liquid rocket engines, according to a Nov. 4 press release from the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center.

The contract is part of a broader effort to end reliance on a Russian rocket engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is used to launch a majority of U.S. national security satellites.

In 2014, Congress banned the future use of Russian engines as tensions with Moscow escalated over Russia’s incursions into Ukraine. Congress also allocated funding to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, but the Air Force hopes to fund work on a brand new rocket as part of its broader strategy to have competition in military launches.

As an initial step, the Air Force is pursuing two aims: reducing the cost of rocket propulsion components and subsystems through the use of new materials and additive manufacturing; and enhancing its overall launch capabilities while lowering costs through improvements to existing rockets or by developing new ones.

The service has said it wants improvements that can be completed in less than two years.

The award to Johns Hopkins is the first of six to eight planned contracts with a combined value of $35 million aimed at developing lower-cost propulsion components. Further awards, ranging between $500,000 and $8 million in value, are expected in the next three months, the release said.