Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX and Russian company NPO Energomash are locked in a struggle to supply rocket engines to the U.S. military.
NPO Energomash currently sells RD-180 rocket engines to American company United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing. ULA inspects the engines, then uses them to power the workhorse rocket of America’s military space program.
ULA had almost cornered the market for national security-related rocket launches until last year, when SpaceX won U.S. Air Force certification for national security space missions.
The RD-180 is an old Soviet design built in Russia by NPO Energomash. Though the design has a record of safety and reliability, some in Congress worry that America’s dependence on Russian rocketry may give Russian President Vladimir Putin dangerous leverage over the American military.
“It is morally outrageous and strategically foolish to subsidize Vladimir Putin’s corrupt military industrial complex with the purchase of Russian rocket engines when Russia occupies Crimea and destabilizes Ukraine, menaces our NATO allies in Europe, bombs U.S.-backed forces in Syria to prop-up the murderous regime of Bashar Assad, and threatens to cut off U.S. access to space,” Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The Air Force could potentially shift satellites slated to be launched on RD-180 powered rockets onto more expensive, but American-made, rocket engines. However, the Air Force doesn’t want to take that step, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the Senate Armed Services Committee in early March that getting rid of the RD-180 early could end up costing taxpayers as much as $5 billion.
“Given the current volatility of our relationship with Russia, I am as eager as any of my colleagues to end America’s dependence on Russian-made rocket engines,” Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “However, I have heard directly from military leaders who have legitimate concerns that Senator McCain’s proposal would needlessly compromise assured access to space until a reliable domestic alternative is developed. Arbitrary and unworkably short deadlines to restrict use of the RD-180 on vital military launches will undoubtedly weaken our national security by grounding launches that support our troops abroad.”
The Wall Street Journal reported last Sunday an independent panel believes remaining dependent on Russia for rocket engines through roughly 2025 would be less risky and would likely save taxpayers billions of dollars.
Essentially everything involving the space industry in Russia is run by Roscosmos, the governmental body responsible for Russia’s space science program and general aerospace research. Roscosmos has individuals targeted by U.S. sanctions serving on its board, is closely tied to Putin’s administration and essentially controls NPO Energomash.
Russia hasn’t been slow about using its control over rocketry to pressure America in the past. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin even threatened to cut off American access to the International Space Station, saying “I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline.”
“Roscosmos aren’t slouches even if they’re Putin cronies. Russia has the most reliable launch vehicles for a reason,” an engineer familiar with the matter told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I think SpaceX could compete, yes, but they’re also a small company working breakneck pacing and overworking employees. Like it or not, having Russian government backing is a MASSIVE hedge against set-back. Barring any problems, SpaceX could, but as we know, things tend to go wrong when you don’t want them to.”
The engineer also specified that the design of the RD-180 isn’t 100 percent Russian, as it was a joint venture between the American firm Pratt & Whitney and Russian companies.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act expressly authorized the use of nine RD-180 engines for national security space launches, however ULA assigned those rockets to civilian projects. This effectively created a new crisis justifying the purchase of an essentially unlimited number of RD-180 rockets.
“Purchasing Russian rocket engines isn’t even necessary. The Secretary of the Air Force testified that the Falcon 9 and Delta IV rockets, both of which have American-made engines, can provide the U.S. with assured access to space,” McCain concluded. “Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the Delta IV rocket meets the intelligence community’s space needs. We can end our dependence on Russian rocket engines without compromising future competition for national security space launches.”
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