Engineering Question #793

Susana, a 22 year old female from Germany asks on May 13, 2002,

I would like to know why Russian rocket engines use 4 nozzles and American ones just one. What advantages and disadvantages are there? What other differences are there between American and Russian rocket engines? (turbopump, combustion chamber,... )

viewed 15831 times

The answer

Tammy Rowan, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center answered on June 4, 2002

There are many reasons dealing with shear size, complexity, and cost. Example: A single US F-1 engine from the Saturn V moon rocket, with one very large nozzle directing 1.5 million pounds of thrust, was a very complex and costly nozzle design to build. The fabrication tooling and vacuum braze chambers needed for it were tremendously large and costly. On the other hand, the Russian RD-170 engine, with 4 smaller thrust chambers directing a total of 1.9 million pounds of thrust, was able to take advantage of a thrust chamber technology that had already been proven using very similar sized tooling and similar fabrication methods used for other Russian engines. It's basically a tradeoff. The single thrust chamber engine has fewer parts and is theoretically more reliable, but more costly and complex to build. The multiple thrust chamber engine has more parts and a theoretically higher probability for more things to fail, but is much less costly and complex to build.

In general, the Russian engine manufacturers have taken an incremental approach to their rocket engine improvements over the years. They typically make evolutionary improvements to existing designs and have produced a very large number of different engine designs over the last 40-50 years, all building on similar technology. The number of US engine designs have been far fewer and have typically been "clean sheet of paper" designs rather than improvements over older designs, with some exceptions. The differences in the systems of government between the US and Russia (USSR) have also had a significant impact on the technology philosophies their respective space programs have taken.

Incidentally, there are at least a couple US engines, Rocketdyne's MA-5 and Aerojet's LR-87, which incorporated multiple thrust chamber assemblies. The RD-180 engine (using 2 thrust chambers) is a derivative of the Russian RD-170 engine and is being used for the US Atlas 3 and 5 launch vehicles.

Roman Marchan, Engineer, Liquid Rocket Engines Department of State Design Office Yuzhnoye, Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine answered on July 26, 2008

Another important advantage is the convenience of combining both launcher and engines. In addition, four combustion chambers are more suitable because smaller length of engine. RD-170 has an extremely compact design. This is the main reason for using four combustion chambers in this engine.

Add to or comment on this answer using the form below.

Note: All submissions are moderated prior to posting.

If you found this answer useful, please consider making a small donation to