As tensions over Ukraine continue to simmer, United Launch Alliance has taken steps to speed up the delivery of Russian RD-180 engines that power its Atlas V launch vehicle. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, draft legislation being circulated in the House would prohibit the company from using those engines to launch any of the Defense Department’s crucial payloads.
These moves come as SpaceX is filing an appeal to a U.S. Air Force decision to award ULA a contract for 36 rocket cores for its Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. The company, which is seeking to open certain launches to competitive bidding, has attacked the sole-source deal as unfair, and criticized continued U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines for the launch of defense spacecraft.
The Hill reports on ULA’s efforts to speed up delivery of the Atlas V first stage engines through RD-AMROSS, the company set up to export the motors.
United Launch Alliance said Thursday it is speeding up its schedule for receiving Russian-made engines, from once a year to twice per year.
ULA received one shipment of four engines last November, but this year will receive shipments of two engines in August and three engines in October.
“This year we are having the engines shipped once they are completed versus waiting to get one shipment,” ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told The Hill.
ULA says it has an existing stockpile of RD-180 engines in the United States that can last two to two-and-a-half years.
Aviation Week has a lengthy account about the House draft legislation and its potential effects on the U.S. launch industry.
Draft legislation circulating in the U.S House of Representatives would bar the use of Russian rocket technology in launching U.S. Defense Department payloads as early as this year.
The language — drafted this month as the U.S. considers additional sanctions against Moscow over aggression in Ukraine — aims squarely at the NPO Energomash-built RD-180 engine used to power the first stage of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5, a Lockheed Martin-built rocket that launches most U.S. government missions.
Specifically, the language asserts that “no payload acquired or operated by or on behalf of the Department of Defense shall be launched into space by any rocket engine designed or developed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Russian Federation, unless such engine was manufactured inside the United States.”
Denver-based ULA, which also manages government launches of the Boeing Delta 4 rocket, currently holds a virtual monopoly on U.S. Air Force national security space missions.
If passed into law this year as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, the congressional direction could force the Air Force to launch satellites on the more-expensive Delta 4.
Launching more satellites on the Delta IV could be prohibitively expensive given the launch vehicle’s much higher cost. Such a move could likely require the awarding of additional cores to ULA to complete the job.