ULA Speeds Up Engine Deliveries as House Mulls Ban on Russian Motor Use

Capitol Building
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.

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)
RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

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.

However, if SpaceX is successful in getting the U.S. Air Force’s 36-core deal with ULA set aside, the company could bid for the launches with its much cheaper Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters.  If the legislation passed, the contract would probably have to be reopened anyway.
The draft legislation would require that the RD-180 to be manufactured in the United States if it were to be used in the Atlas V. Officials have said such a move is possible, but it would likely take $1 billion and five years to implement.
The legislation is written broadly enough that it could also cause major problems for Orbital Sciences Corporation, which last year introduced its new Antares medium launch vehicle. The Antares is powered by two AJ26 engines, which are refurbished NK-33 motors left over from the Soviet Union’s manned lunar program.
There are a limited number of AJ26 engines in the United States. Orbital Sciences is now considered proposals from one American and two Russian engine companies to provide engines for the Antares first stage. One proposal would involve restarting NK-33 engine production in Russia.  Another option likely involves purchasing RD-180 engines now used in the Atlas V.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has criticized the U.S. reliance upon Russian engines, which comes at a time when the American government is imposing sanctions on Russia over its aggressive actions in Ukraine. Russia has annexed the Crimea Peninsula and threatened to invade the rest of Ukraine.