The U.S. Bind Over a Ban on Russian Rocket Engines

The U.S. Bind Over a Ban on Russian Rocket Engines, by Michael Singh.

Although we won the race against the Soviets to place a man on the moon, the United States can no longer send an astronaut into space without Russia’s help. Nor can the U.S. launch the Atlas V–used to put heavy national security satellites into orbit — without use of the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. …

The Russian RD-180 rocket engines fitted to a US Atlas V rocket

The Russian RD-180 rocket engines, fitted to a US Atlas V rocket

But the US is arguing over foreign policy with Russia, and applied economic sanctions over the Ukraine.

Tucked into the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed last week is a provision effectively lifting a one-year-old ban on the purchase of RD-180 rocket engines from Russia. …

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, where United Launch Alliance produces the Atlas V rocket that uses the RD-180, calling the ban a “reckless” measure that “undermines our national security.”

Sen. John McCain has said that lifting the ban is tantamount to “subsidiz[ing] Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and lin[ing] the pockets of [Vladimir] Putin’s gang of thugs.” …

This dependency was a byproduct of the optimism that accompanied the end of the Cold War: In 1993, Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed to various forms of space cooperation, in part to keep Soviet rocket scientists peaceably employed. Ultimately this contributed to Lockheed Martin choosing the reliable, inexpensive RD-180 to power its Atlas V rocket. …

The complication is that rockets are designed for particular engines, and the U.S. had no perfect alternative to the Atlas V and the RD-180.

How long for the US to develop its own engine?

“You’re looking at six years, maybe seven years to develop an engine and another year or two beyond that to integrate,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said.

NASA engineers successfully tested a Russian-built rocket engine on November 4, 1998 at the Marshall Space Flight Center

NASA engineers test the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine in 1998 at the Marshall Space Flight Center