By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. drive to end its reliance on Russian rocket motors got a boost this week when Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos unveiled a new engine project, but officials and industry insiders say it will take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a locally built alternative.
Other companies, including privately held Space Exploration Technologies, led by another technology billionaire, Elon Musk, and Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp Inc, have been energized by the Pentagon's growing determination to find alternatives to the Russian-built RD-180 engine now used to launch some of the biggest U.S. military and spy satellites.
Companies were due to submit by Friday formal requests for information (RFI) from the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force is also hosting meetings on the issue with the industry at Los Angeles Air Force Base next week.
Until now, U.S. production of the RD-180 or development of a separate engine were seen as too costly, and a possible irritant to relations with Moscow at a time when Washington depended on Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.
Those views changed after Russia annexed Crimea. U.S. officials are now more concerned that rising tensions could prompt Moscow to halt deliveries of the engines needed to launch the most sensitive U.S. spy satellites.
Lawmakers wrote to President Barack Obama this week, citing widespread support for efforts to develop a U.S. engine, and to ensure it would be available to multiple launch companies.
Air Force Secretary Deborah James told reporters the U.S. government was determined to end its reliance on the Russian engines "as soon as practicable."
Air Force officials would review industry responses to the RFI before deciding on the next steps, she added, but initial funding was likely to be included in the fiscal 2016 budget request submitted to Congress next February.
One former senior U.S. official cautioned the engine developed by Bezos' Blue Origin in conjunction with the United Launch Alliance - a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin - faced "a large number of technical challenges." The design calls for unconventional propellants such as liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas.
Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, told reporters this week it would take about four more years before the Blue Origin engine was ready. He acknowledged the current Atlas 5 booster would need modification given the different fuel used by the BE-4 engine. He said ULA was confident about the project, but had "contingency plans" to fall back on.
Russia's Energomash was also continuing to deliver RD-180 engines, with no threat to that supply for now, Bruno added.
Bezos underscored the complexity of developing a new rocket engine, telling reporters: "There is no way to rush the rocket development process. You can't cut corners. It needs to be methodical and deliberate."
Aerojet Rocketdyne has been doing preliminary research with Dynetics Inc, a private research group, on a new engine.
Steve Cook, Dynetics' director of corporate development, said he was confident a prototype could be developed in 2-1/2 years, and a new engine could be ready by 2019.
SpaceX plans to unveil its own heavy-lift rocket next year, which could replace or augment ULA's Atlas 5 rocket.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal. Editing by Ros Krasny and Andre Grenon)