Russian Rocket Engines Exempted from Sanctions Bill

RD-180 test firing. (Credit: NASA)

Officials at Orbital ATK and ULA breathed sighs of relief on Thursday as the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to exempt rocket engines from a sanctions bill targeting Iran and Russia.

The amendment to the sanctions measure exempted RD-180 engines used by ULA in the first stage of its Atlas V booster and the RD-181 engines Orbital ATK uses in the first stage of its Antares launch vehicle. Both engines are produced by NPO Energomash of Russia.

The vote was 94 – 6. Arizona Sen. John McCain, a vocal critic of ULA’s dependence on the RD-180 engine, voted against the amendment.

ULA is developing a new launch vehicle named Vulcan to replace the Atlas V and Delta IV launch vehicles. That vehicle’s first stage will be powered by domestic engines produced by either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne. ULA has not selected an engine yet.

The Atlas V and Delta IV launch a number of crucial national defense and civilian payloads. The U.S. government is eager to reduce its dependence on Russian rocket engines due to deteriorating relations between the two countries.

However, the Vulcan booster is not expected to be certified for national defense payloads for another five years or so, necessitating the need to continue importing Russian engines to power the Atlas V.

ULA will also use the Atlas V to launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which is scheduled to begin flight tests to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2018. Starliner will ferry crews to and from the space station, helping to eliminate dependence on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Orbital ATK has NASA contracts through 2024 to launch its Cygnus resupply ship to ISS using its Russian-powered Antares booster.



  • JamesG

    Iran not Iraq.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    I still think that NASA should’ve required American engined launch vehicles to launch crewed spacecraft in the CCP cntracts.

  • Tom Billings

    That would have excluded ULA’s Atlas V, on the original timeframe of Commercial Crew in 2008, before the Committee Chairs started slowing down Commercial Crew. ULA’s lobbists were far too good to let that happen in a Congress controlled by the people who in 1996 made sure that ULA was using at least one Russian engine to placate the Great Russia faction in the Kremlin. The Delta IV’s engine was always going to be too costly to compete with SpaceX. Until 2012 the cost+ crowd was telling everyone that SpaceX couldn’t do Falcon 9 anyway. That would have left Commercial Crew condemned to $450 million launches with the Delta IV.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    With Boeing’s CCTCaP contract award, a Delta IV medium would’ve fit in nicely?

  • duheagle

    Delta IV lacks the minimum structural margins needed to meet NASA’s human transport requirements.

  • Tom Billings

    And cost two to four times as much as an Atlas V. Those LHy/Lox engines on the Delta IV, are extremely expensive as expendables. Since congressional committee members were interested in keeping jobs in the industry, they didn’t mind cost, until the rest of Congress found it encroaching on *their* funding.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Which means that it could’ve been human rated or fixed to meet the NASA needs.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    NASA support of SpaceX really threw a monkey wrench into the plans of Boeing and Lockheed to bind all the government launches to themselves. ULA expected to have no competition, ever, in the U.S. A lot was attempted to keep SpaceX out of the launch business. Just my opinion.

  • Tom Billings

    True, but this resistance from the top of the hierarchies goes back *much* farther. I was told by Max Hunter, at the 2000 Space& Robotics Conference, that as early as 1979 he was being asked at a conference, by Robert Mueller from NASA HQ, to participate in the whispering campaign against investors in Space Services Inc. who were trying to get a new launch vehicle off the ground. That whispering campaign succeeded, and SSI was bogged down using solid fuel rockets for which there were no replacements after the initial supply was used up.

    This sort of thing continued against competitors from outside the cost+ contractors congressional dependent’s club through 2004, when the Columbia disaster finally brought it to a halt for the remaining years of the Bush administration. It was in those years that the first SpaceX contracts were signed, and their first successful orbital mission flew. Then, when it became clear that Obama was not interested in full employment in Northern Alabama as a priority for NASA, the campaign against SpaceX really caught fire.