chambers of Congress addressed potential issues in the supply line of
Russian-made RD-180 engines, which power United Launch Alliance’s Atlas
rockets, in the individual versions of the Fiscal 2015 defense authorization
May 28, 2014—The House version of the Fiscal 2015 defense authorization
bill includes $220 million to develop an alternative to the Russian-made RD-180
engine, which powers United Launch Alliance Atlas rockets.
In addition, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s mark of the
Fiscal 2015 authorization bill prohibits “the use of Russian rocket engines on
the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle at the end of the current block buy
contract.” The SASC mark also calls on the Defense Department to “pursue new
domestic development in a world-class liquid rocket engine.”
If enacted, the language becomes even more critical as tensions
between the US and Russia over the RD-180 heat up.
In early May, a federal judge with the US Court of Federal Claims
lifted an injunction that barred United Launch Alliance from purchasing RD-180
engines, noting US officials had sufficiently convinced her the purchases did
not violate US sanctions against Russian officials that were enacted in the wake of
Russian military aggression in Ukraine, reported
Following the announcement, Russian officials shot back, saying
the engines will not be sold to the US for use on defense projects.
“Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the
US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the
Pentagon,” Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted on May 13 following a press briefing on international space cooperation.
In a statement released the same day, ULA officials denied knowledge of any
restrictions, but assured stakeholders that any disruption would not be fatal
to the program.
“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of
any restrictions. However, if recent news reports are accurate, … ULA has two
launch vehicles that can support all of [our] customers' needs. We also
maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our
other rocket, Delta, which has all US-produced rocket engines.”
During a space conference in Colorado last week, Air Force Space
Command boss Gen. William Shelton said there “have been no official
pronouncements out of the Russian government on the RD-180” other than the one
tweet from “one government official that has caused everybody concern,”
reported Space Politics.
“I think [this is] a time to pause and find out if that’s the
official position,” added Shelton. “Right now, I don’t think we have an
indication that it really is where the government comes down on this in the
long term, and there are other indications that ‘business as usual’ is the
state of play with Russian industry.”
“There’s a debate to be had, and I think it will occur over the
next four-to-five months,” Shelton said, according to the Space
Politics report. “All of the studies we did in the past indicated that
the cost to co-produce [an alternative engine], versus the cost of developing a
new engine were about in the same ballpark.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell and former NASA Administrator Michael
Griffin led a commission, formed earlier this year as tensions between Ukraine and Russia began to escalate, to study potential issues with the RD-180 supply line, reported Aviation Week, citing industry
Although the commission’s findings were not made public, Aviation
Week published a summary of the commission’s report, which says
that “regardless of RD-180 viability, [the] US needs to develop a domestic
According to the summary, the
“national baseline manifest is not supportable beyond March 2016” without
additional RD-180 engines. Specifically, there are 38 Atlas missions that are
manifested and only 16 RD-180 engines in the stockpile.
During the May 13 briefing, Rogozin said Russia “will proceed from the fact that we can no
longer deliver these engines to the United States, and that we can no longer
maintain and repair previously shipped engines, unless we receive guarantees
that our engines are used only for launching civilian payloads.”
In addition to the ban on engine sales, Rogozin went on to outline
other actions Russia would take in response to the US-imposed sanctions levied on the country because of tensions with Ukraine.
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