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.