Russian Rocket Engine Dilemma: No Space Access without Moscow?

US Buying Once Sanctioned Russian Rocket Engine

The Russian rocket engine most commonly used in US rocket launches is the RD-180/181.  It has been a staple of US rocket technology for over a decade and is employed by several US aerospace companies.

But the purchase of this Russian rocket engine was  limited due to sanctions the United States placed on certain Russian products after their annexation of Crimea

Now, according to Alexander Stadnik, Russia's trade representative to the United States, the US has removed them from the list of sanctioned products.

In a statement to RIA Novosti, Russia's international news agency, Stadnik noted that the US and Russia were continuing to cooperate and abide by existing contracts:

They must have understood that they needed this Russian equipment for development of rocket equipment, otherwise they would have to limit themselves in a series of expensive projects. It is evident that this is the reason the supplies of our engines were continued.

Last January, Russian rocket producer Energia signed a $1 billion contract with US Orbital Sciences Corporation for the delivery of 60 RD-181 engines. The contract also includes a provision on a range of services including flight training, installation of the engine and engine testing.

In the late 1990s, the Russian Energomash company won a contract with United Launch Alliance to supply RD-180 engines for the Atlas rockets. This contract, valued at about $1 billion, remains in place.

And, in an effort to guarantee America's access to space and to eliminate any possible national security risk, many US lawmakers are pushing to slow the Pentagon's phase-out of the Russian rocket engine.​

Senator Richard Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, plans to propose amendments to the federal spending bill that would allow United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to keep buying RD-180 engines from Russia until a domestic alternative is available.

The Russian rocket engine has powered dozens of ULA's satellite launches of military hardware over the past decade, but recent tensions with Russia and the emergence of a second launch company, California-based SpaceX - prompted Congress last year to push to phase out the RD-180 engines.

Congress has approved a defense authorization bill that would allow ULA to buy a maximum of four more Russian engines beyond its current allotment. ULA chief Tory Bruno has said that could mean the company will run out of the engines by 2019, up to three years before Blue Origin's Vulcan BE-4 rocket engine, will be ready

The result, he said, could be the same monopolistic environment the Pentagon wants to eliminate, with SpaceX instead of ULA handling all the launches.

According to US the Air Force, America needs up to 18 additional RD-180 engines through 2022 "to prevent interruptions in the satellite launch schedule.

But not all US lawmakers agree.

Senator John McCain​, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was concerned the spending panel may consider language “that would undermine” restrictions on using Russian-made engines written into in the annual defense authorization measure that he helped craft.

According to McCain, the ​United Launch Alliance, a Boeing/Lockheed Martin joint venture, is trying: 

to manufacture a crisis by prematurely diminishing its stockpile of engines. Such efforts should not be misconstrued as a compelling reason to undermine any sanctions on Russia while they occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, bolster Assad in Syria, send weapons to Iran and violate the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

​Sources: Sputnik News, Bloomberg

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