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Future Uncertain for Russian Rocket Engine

by Brendan McGarry on June 20, 2014

Atlas V NROL-33

The U.S. Air Force hasn’t yet decided what to do about its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine, the service’s top civilian said.

“There’s no final decisions on any of these matters concerning the RD-180,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said this week during a breakfast with defense reporters in Washington, D.C.

The engine, made by the Russian company NPO Energomash, is employed by the Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture United Launch Alliance LLC as a first-stage engine on the Atlas V rocket as part of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which ferries military and spy satellites into space.

Rising tensions between the two countries over Russia’s invasion and subsequent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region this year have raised questions about American dependence on Russian hardware for national-security programs.

What’s more, a California-based company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, wants to compete for a slice of the military market and in April sued the Air Force to open more of the EELV launches to competition.

Michael Gass, the head of United Launch Alliance, this week said deliveries of the RD-180 engine continue, despite recent threats from Russia that it would stop the supply. Two engines are scheduled for delivery in August and three more in October, Gass said, according to an article by Christian Davenport of The Washington Post. The company also pledged to begin developing a its own replacement engine.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, in May tweeted, “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.” He also wrote that Russia “doesn’t plan to continue cooperation” with the U.S. on the International Space Station after 2020 — four years earlier than NASA plans — and that it would deactivate sites of the U.S.-managed GPS system in the country.

The messages were viewed as retaliation against U.S. sanctions. Rogozin, who heads up the country’s defense and space industries, was on a list of Russian officials targeted in March by the White House for economic sanctions in response to Russia’s military action.

Regardless, the Air Force secretary said a recent independent study, known as the Mitchell report after its author, Howard J. Mitchell, a retired Air Force major general, concluded that the U.S. shouldn’t rely so heavily on Russia to launch spacecraft.

The report, a summary of which has been posted on the website, www​.spacepolitics​.com, pointed out that there were 38 Atlas V missions on the launch manifest, but only 16 RD-180 engines stockpiled in the U.S., and makes a series of recommendations, according to a post on the website by Jeff Foust.

James, the Air Force secretary, said the service is considering expediting delivery of the engines, speeding up the certification process for new entrants to the program such as SpaceX, and, in the long-term, identifying ways to manufacture an engine in the U.S, either by co-producing the existing engine, developing a new engine under a traditional acquisition program or adapting technology already available in the private sector for the program under a public-private partnership, she said.

“These are all options on the table and there’s no final decision yet on which way to go,” she said.

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

hibeam June 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Hey Air Force.. I have four words for you. North Korean Rocket Engines. You guys can be the experts in painting rockets, leave the hard stuff to other folks.


Bernard June 20, 2014 at 1:10 pm

We need to stop using those Russian rocket engines now. We have American companies that can make these things, there is no reason to rely on Russia for this.


rtsy June 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

If that were the case we'd already be doing it.


I had to ask June 20, 2014 at 3:15 pm

that is the case.


OriginalK June 20, 2014 at 4:49 pm
Bernard June 20, 2014 at 4:19 pm

I see you've never heard of Space X.


rtsy June 21, 2014 at 10:59 am

Thats one company, founded by an eccentric billionaire who can handle losing a few million in startup costs.

Where are all the other so called American rocket engine companies? They don't exist.


Dfens June 22, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Rocketdyne, Aerojet, Pratt and Whitney, I could go on.

complex June 26, 2014 at 5:08 pm

There is a big reason, how else will we line the pockets of Boeing and LockMart?


Lance June 20, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Stop the international crap Brass and make our own engines.


Marc Winger June 20, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Even if it means subsidies for US engine manufacturers, if there are any left, there should be no more purchases from Russia. Permanently. One doesn't patronize an enemy & the fiction that they're are a friend & ally, has been a delusion since the Soviet collapse.


extreme_one June 20, 2014 at 2:10 pm

I think the fact that Russia is an enemy nowadays is fiction ;)


extreme_one June 20, 2014 at 2:09 pm

What alternatives are there that don't need 5-10 years of development atm?
Only SpaceX?


stutts June 22, 2014 at 3:50 pm

LOL. when we decided to go to the moon it only took 10 yrs!


extreme_one June 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm

When it comes to past events we can't be sure of anything at all. There was no internet back then. Everything and anything might be false.


blight_ June 26, 2014 at 6:23 pm

"There was no internet back then."

So internet makes things more…true?


extreme_one June 26, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Try harder and read the text again

"When it comes to past events we can't be sure of anything at all. There was no internet back then. Everything and anything might be false."

dogfighter June 20, 2014 at 4:10 pm

we should fund spacex fully, I bet the private companies will do what our govy contractors in ula take so long to do in half the time. spacex is pride for my generation, we will win the day again


bart hooliman June 21, 2014 at 1:20 am

yes, because we have so much spare money


John Deere June 22, 2014 at 5:24 pm

SpaceX's profits come from winning Government contracts. Yes, SpaceX's profits comes from the US taxpayer.


Dfens June 24, 2014 at 11:50 pm

ULA's profits come from cost plus award fee contracts to integrate payloads on rockets. SpaceX's money comes from commercial contracts to launch payloads.


Big-Dean June 20, 2014 at 4:20 pm

And the crack addict wondered about what he should do about his dependency on crack., "what should I do, what should I do…"


big rob June 22, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Yea why would we depend on our enemy.to get us into space,this country is acting like they forgot all the history lessons of the past.wake up.


Big-Dean June 20, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Joke of the Day
How many air force generals does it take to make a decision that buying rocket engines from Russia is NOT a good idea-apparently more then they have . LMAO


Big-Dean June 20, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Next Joke of the Day
How many air forces generals plan on working for Lockheed when they retire-that's a silly question, they're all working for Lockheed right now.


retired462 June 20, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Putin is pushing us pretty hard right now. i.e. TU-95's off of U.S. coast; needless to say he has been doing the same off the coast of the U.K. Is Cold War II here? He could shut us off in a heartbeat! Dump Russia's contract with us now!


Deuterium2H June 20, 2014 at 11:08 pm

With all due respect, OriginalK…that is complete nonsense.

The USAF awarded the first EELV contracts to Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for their Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles (respectively) back in 1998, BEFORE EITHER of these NEW launch vehicles had ever flown. While some might argue that the Atlas V consisted of a large percentage of proven legacy hardware, carried over from the Atlas 3, it was still an untested, new launch system. The Delta IV had no such "excuse", and was basically a clean F'n sheet of paper. Brand new engine, brand new common booster core, avionics, the whole shebang.

So, guess what…the DOD put a military satellite onto the SECOND launch of the brand new Delta IV…less than 4 months after it's first demonstration launch.

So please don't try to tell us that one set of "statistical reliability calculations" apply to LM and Boeing (now merged under ULA), yet a completely different set must apply to SpaceX…and that SpaceX has to have "40 or so successful launches with no failures under their belt", before they can earn USAF certification. Actually, not even the USAF is claiming that, thankfully.

By the way, the Delta IV didn't even make it to 5 successful consecutive launches. The 4th Delta IV launch was a mission failure. http://www.spacedaily.com/news/rocketscience-05b….


Roland June 21, 2014 at 5:14 am

Why not use all available technology and enhance it for space mission and explorations. We already have Space X and other existing assets aside from space , russian rockets and Titan missles.


Max June 21, 2014 at 7:49 am

in the first place, US should never rely heavily on Russian's made rockets.
US has always been pioneers in every field. Time to dump the garbage.


Christopher Bloom June 21, 2014 at 1:11 pm

What Rocket engine did we use to launch these military Satellites before the early 1990's?


ghostwhowalks June 21, 2014 at 7:42 pm

What cell phones were used in the 1990s?

Its the technology, Energomash is the equivalent to Apple today.

With rockets the more thrust you have for a weight of rocket the better payload can go into orbit.
Do you really want to be using outdated technology to put todays payloads into orbit. Good luck with that


Godzilla July 3, 2014 at 9:09 pm

The Titan IV. It has been retired. Not that it is a problem. The Delta IV can launch all the Atlas V payloads just fine and it is 100% manufactured in the US. As is SpaceX Falcon 9.

The thing is Delta IV is more expensive than Atlas V and Falcon 9 is not part of the old boys club. So.


Bob in California June 21, 2014 at 1:45 pm

It still amazes me just how many ignorant people will jump on a subject and know nothing about it. Here's a fact that no one has mentioned: There are 104 rocket engine and associated rocket component manufacturers in the United States. We don't need Russia or any other country! America has always excelled in the aerospace and astronautics industries. It seems that OriginalK believes there are no other viable resources in our country for building rockets. Hey, OriginalK, so your homework! For those who need proof of all the manufacturers right here in the good ol' USA here ya go: http://www.manta.com/mb_35_G02F9000_000/guided_mi


ghostwhowalks June 21, 2014 at 7:47 pm

Unfortunately you are incorrect on this one. When it comes to the overall rocket technology the Russians were ahead. They just had many more programs and rocket types.
If you want to use US rockets you cant put the payloads you want into orbit.


BIG ROB June 22, 2014 at 10:20 pm



blight_ June 26, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Russia's sole lead is in a particular niche of rocket launches. It does not spell the imminent doom of all American rocketry.

Please take your soma.


ribby22 June 22, 2014 at 5:41 am

Why the Hell would we use Russian rockets in the First place? Well folks there is a very simple answer here , (and it's the truth )because their engines were far more advanced than our rockets. These rockets far out performed our rockets . They were using technology that our best experts in rocket science said was impossible and yet the Russians had perfected it. This is what happens when there exists a Monopoly which is controlled by the Government and Who's compass is controlled by special interest lobby groups This is why we need companies like spaceX and people like Mr. Musk. Bravo Mr. Musk , I truly believe that he wants to do what's right for his country not only himself for his company. Elon Musk is the modern equivalent of Roy Grumman a true American Patriot.


Godzilla July 3, 2014 at 9:12 pm

The Russian staged combustion LOX/Kerosene rocket engines, like the RD-180, were better yes but the correct way to go about it was to license production in the US. Not this. In fact it was sold to the USAF as that then they cancelled US production as 'uneconomic'.


rick June 24, 2014 at 2:53 am

I think its a really good i deal for Russia to take their Rockets. It will just push the people here to make newer even better rockets for our selves. The reason we are probably using Russian rockets is because it was cheaper. saving a few bucks, on less congressmen touches it, then it worth three times as much.


mule June 23, 2014 at 1:36 pm

Actually, those are all the same company at different points in history. Rocketdyne was a part of North American, then Rockwell, then Boeing, then Pratt, and now Aerojet. Bottom line, Rocketdyne is really the only game in town for big, liquid fueled rocket motors. SpaceX is making some big ones too, but only for their own vehicles. There are other companies making smaller motors for sub-orbital launch and maneuvering, but nothing on the scale of the Rocketdyne and SpaceX motors.


Wulf June 23, 2014 at 7:52 pm

Northrup Grumman? Blue Origin?


blight_ June 26, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Try harder and don't include sentences that are irrelevant to the main idea.


Moving on…

"When it comes to past events we can't be sure of anything at all."

Considering that only eyewitnessing an event is the only way to be assured of anything, anything reported secondhand (even from primary sources) is suspect.

'Everything and anything might be false."

Pretty much. That and everything has a spin, even when technically true.


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