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The United States was one of the two initial space-faring countries. Without assured access to space, the United States will cease to be a Great Power. It is almost impossible for those who have grown up in the era of Apollo, Moon landings, the Shuttle and missions to the International Space Station to imagine a time in which this country’s ability to launch payloads and people into space would be severely limited. Yet, that time is right in front of us.
The reason why is because of our dependence on a Russian-made engine, called the RD-180, to boost one of our two available rockets, the Atlas V, into space. Guaranteed access to supplies of the RD-180 has fallen victim to Moscow’s aggression against its neighbors and Congress’s unwillingness to reward the Kremlin for its bad behavior.
The immediate crisis over availability of the RD-180 is symptomatic of a broader problem in the space industrial base. A combination of failures by both the Air Force and NASA to successfully manage the development of new launchers and space vehicles, the termination of the Shuttle replacement program, delays in defining intercontinental (ICBM) and submarine-launched (SLBM) ballistic missile modernization and inaccurate predictions regarding the size of the space launch market combined to severely damage this sector. A significant reduction in demand for most classes of rockets and missiles left the industry with excess capacity with respect to the addressable market.
In recent years, NASA and the Air Force have taken steps to improve U.S. access to space. The Air Force has opened up the market for launch of national security payloads to new commercial competitors, provided they can meet stringent certification standards. NASA recently awarded contracts for the development of a new crew vehicle to carry U.S. astronauts into space. The Minuteman missile force recently completed a major refurbishment program.
The one glaring deficiency in this good news story is the continuing dependence on the RD-180. The U.S. space program needs to free itself from this potential albatross. This means developing and producing domestically a new engine for the Atlas V.
Fortunately, there are a number of companies that could do the job, assuming they get the opportunity to compete for the job. Indeed, it is rather remarkable that since the issue of the RD-180 emerged, no fewer than five companies have come forward to indicate their interest and demonstrate their capability to compete for the work.
Decisions taken some two decades ago put this country’s assured access to space at risk. Those responsible today both in government and Congress need to be sure that decisions taken in the near term regarding the choice of an alternative to the RD-180 do not result in similar problems. In particular, there needs to be a process that clearly and openly balances tradeoffs between time, cost, risk and capability. Also, decisionmakers must not be shortsighted in their desire for a solution that appears rapid and cheap, thereby throwing away the opportunity not only to ensure reliable access to space but advance the state-of-the-art in rocket engine design, reinvigorate a part of the U.S. aerospace and defense industry that is in decline, create jobs and promote national security more broadly.
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