NASA and the U.S. military could be affected by a major Russian scandal in which rockets were made out of cheap and potentially faulty metal.
Russia’s flagship Proton booster and Soyuz rocket is used by NASA to launch crews and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Other parts of Russian rockets are also used to launch satellites by the U.S. military. Examples of both designs have been recalled in Russia due to metal flaws.
An uncrewed Russian rocket appears to have been destroyed by this flaw in early December.
“The failure of the engine was reportedly traced to illegal replacement of precious heat-resistant alloys within the engine’s components with less expensive but failure-prone materials,” Anatoly Zak, a Russian space analyst, wrote in a report. This “echoed the results of the investigation into the 2015 Proton failure, which found that low-quality material in the turbo-pump shaft of the engine had led to the accident.”
So far, the metal flaws have been confined to the Voronezh Manufacturing Plant in southwestern Russia, but the problem could be larger.
RD-180 rocket engines from another Russian company are the workhouse rocket for the American military’s space program. However, the U.S. Air Force and Congress are now considering shifting satellites slated to be launched on RD-180 powered rockets onto more expensive, but American-made, rocket engines.
The RD-180 is an old Soviet design, which has been purchased by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between major defense contractors. Some in Congress worry that America’s dependence on Russian rocketry may give Russian President Vladimir Putin dangerous leverage over the American military.
But the shift would be expensive. 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.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act expressly authorized the use of nine RD-180 engines for national security space launches, but ULA assigned those rockets to civilian projects. This effectively created a new crisis as it justifies the purchase of an essentially unlimited number of RD-180 rockets.
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