At the same time that the Obama Administration is trying to organize our NATO allies to put pressure on Moscow over its efforts to destabilize Ukraine, a U.S. company has taken a big step towards really hitting Russia where it hurts: in its pocket book. Aerojet Rocketdyne has proposed building a new, modern U.S. rocket engine that would compete against one built by a Russian company.
The reason this is important is that today the U.S. is dependent on purchases of Russian engines to operate one of its two primary satellite launchers, the Atlas V. The first stage of the Atlas V, the workhorse of the U.S. space launch capability, operated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), is the Russian RD-180. Today, the ULA has a two year supply of these engines on hand. However, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and on the list of individuals sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, announced recently that his country would no longer sell U.S. companies the RD-180 rocket engine. This action underscores how hard it is to trade with your enemies.
The U.S. is scrambling to respond to this serious threat to our access to space. The U.S. bought the license to produce the RD-180 domestically. However, it would take at least four years and $1 billion to build a production line and the Russian government still controls use of the engine. Some payloads could be shifted to the other ULA launcher, the Delta IV. But heavier payloads would still require the Atlas V. It is clear to all responsible parties that the United States needs to free itself from dependence on Russian rocket motors.
Enter Aerojet Rocketdyne. The company has committed to providing the ULA – and other U.S. launch providers – with a new, modern, high-performance first-stage rocket motor for about the same price as the RD-180. In a public announcement, Aerojet Rocketdyne said that it could produce pairs of the AR-1 engine for about $25 million. The company has already spent about $300 million to develop technologies that would flow into the AR-1. It will take about four years and $1 billion to finish development of the engine and begin production, about the same as for the RD-180. The difference is that this would be a better engine, made in the U.S. It would also end a system which, in effect, has the Department of Defense sending money to the Russian oligarchs.
President Obama, responding to continuing efforts by Moscow to undermine Ukraine’s independence, just pledged $1 billion to support expanded exercises and training activities by NATO forces. An equal amount spent to complete development of the AR-1 would send an equally powerful message to the autocrat in the Kremlin and improve U.S. national security and trade balance at the same time.
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