Vote Contradicts Previous Effort to Reduce US Reliance
For several years, the United States has been relying on Russia-made RD-180 rocket engines to put its national security satellites into orbit. These are the engines used for the first stage of the United Launch Alliance's - a Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture - Atlas V rocket space launches.
That's a major concern for many politicians, most notably John McCain, who has consistently worked to reduce dependence on Russian technology in the use of launch vehicles.
In fact, in 2014 the US Congress passed a law requiring the United States phase out its reliance on the Russian-made RD-180s.
But just two years after implementing the ban, Congress was forced to lift the measure to ensure the United States maintained access to space.
And now, in a surprising shift, the US Congressional Armed Services Committee voted Thursday to double Russian rocket engine purchases -- to 18 from the previous 9 that had been allocated.
The bill was authored by Republican Congressman Mike Coffman from the state of Colorado. According to Coffman, assured access to space is critical to US national security and limiting the number of RD-180 engines to only nine puts that access at risk. In speaking to The Hill, a media and publishing website that closely follows US politics, Coffman said:
[I'm] aware of the need to end our reliance to Russian rocket engines, but not at the expense of the required of assured access.
Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington, also supported the bill, arguing that there is no real alternative to these engines in today's marketplace. He added
The number of 18 is pulled pretty much out of thin air... Though the 18 isn't perfect, I will support that bridge of 18.
Not everyone was in agreement, however.
Opponents, including Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, claimed that the vote to double Russian rocket engine purchases would simply contribute $540 million to Russia's military modernization.
Who's talking to Whom?
NASA seems to also contradict the need for a bill to double Russian rocket engine purchases.
Just a day earlier, Charles Bolden, NASA's chief administrator, claimed the US space program is close to ending its dependence on RD-180 rocket engines. In a statement at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, he said:
We are poised to end our reliance on Russia to get our astronauts to space.
But if that's the case, why the need for a bill to double the number of engines that can be purchased?
In all fairness, Bolden may have been speaking more about the use of Russian launch services to get astronauts to the ISS, and not the need for RD-180 engines to support ULA satellite launches.
But it makes you wonder - where is the need for the additional RD-180 rocket engines. And, maybe more importantly, who exactly is talking to whom?
What do you think? Is there a need for this bill?