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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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