The Department of Defense (DoD) has a problem. It is critically dependent on Russian rocket motors for many of its national security space launches. The reason for this is the failure over the past several decades of DoD and NASA to invest in the development of a new large, liquid fuel rocket motor. The U.S. government contracts with a private company, United Launch Alliance (ULA), for most of its satellite launches. ULA uses two rockets for space launches, the Delta IV and Atlas V. The first stage engine for the Atlas V, the bigger of the two rockets and the one used to lift larger and heavier payloads into space, is a Russian rocket motor, the RD-180. It is purchased by ULA from a Russian company, NPO Energomash. You can see the problem. U.S. national security is at risk.
As relations with Russia have deteriorated in the wake of that country’s aggression against Ukraine, the situation has become potentially dire. The United States has imposed sanctions on a number of senior Russian officials, including high-ranking members of the government. In retaliation, the Kremlin could simply refuse any more sales to ULA of the RD-180. While Pratt & Whitney has a license to produce this engine in the U.S., the Russians still retain the right to approve the end use, meaning that they could still prohibit sales to ULA.
And the situation has been further complicated. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, which is producing its own rocket motors, went to court to prevent ULA from moving forward on a large purchase of RD-180 engines. A U.S. judge has issued an injunction prohibiting both ULA and the U.S. Air Force from “making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity, whether governmental, corporate or individual, that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin” who is one of the individuals sanctioned by the U.S. government. Logically, the same injunction would also impact an effort to build a U.S.-based production line for the RD-180.
Senior Pentagon officials have claimed that there are no easy alternative options for the U.S. but to continue to buy Russian engines. This is not quite accurate. ULA is reported to have stockpiled two years’ worth of RD-180 engines. This inventory can be extended by managing launches and shifting some payloads to the Delta IV, thus providing time to pursue an alternative source of non-Russian engines.
There are three options that need to be explored. First, Elon Musk has proposed using a variant of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch vehicle which has made several successful supply runs to the International Space Station. The Falcon 9 would have to be certified to carry sensitive national security payloads. Also, while reliable, the Falcon 9’s Merlin engine is based, like the RD-180, on old technology. The second option is to accelerate current Air Force and NASA R&D programs to develop and test a new, advanced, U.S.-designed and built large liquid fuel rocket engine. This would potentially create two new U.S. engine supplier companies. The third option is to allow SpaceX and either one or both U.S. companies to compete for future rocket motor orders.
DoD officials are reluctant to invest the money and time (around $1 billion and several years) necessary to develop and demonstrate a U.S. liquid fuel engine capability. They believe their only option is to continue buying the RD-180s from Russia, thereby undermining the administration’s sanctions policy and leaving this nation’s security hostage to Vladimir Putin. In a $500 billion annual defense budget, $1 billion for freeing us from a critical vulnerability to Russian blackmail is a small price to pay.
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