Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Washington "All Fired Up" Over Russian Rocket Engines

          By Henry Stewart

John McCain. Photo c/o Brietbart.com
There's no finer example of the money to be made from building rockets than the current battle in Washington between US Senator John McCain and United Launch Alliance (ULA) over the purchase of Russian built rocket engines to power ULA built rockets. 

As outlined in the January 27th, 2016 Verge article, "John McCain is trying to stop the military from using Russian rocket engines again," ULA CEO Tory Bruno doesn't so much need the Russian engines to provide ongoing access to orbit for US military payloads as he needs them to compete with SpaceX and its Falcon family of multi-use rockets for lucrative US military contracts. 

The US Congress had initially banned the use of Russian rocket engines for US national security launches under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2015 in reaction to Russia’s 2014 incursion into neighboring Ukraine. But the ban exempted five Russian RD-180 rocket engines that were already on order and were needed for ULA to comply with existing contracts. Exceptions covering four additional RD-180 engines were included in the 2016 US Defence Authorization bill, for much the same reasons and after much debate.

But the 2016 exemptions, as championed by McCain in his role as chair of the House Armed Services Committee, limited ULA to "far fewer Russian-made engines than the company says it needs to stay viable in its core national security market," at least according to the September 30th, 2015 Space News post, "Defense Bill Curbs ULA Use of Russian Engines but Draws Veto Threat."

The bill was also expected to end the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program covering Atlas-5 and Delta-4 launch services not covered under their standard contracts. 

ULA critics have long argued that that these additional contracted funds, which are officially intended to assure access to space for Department of Defense and other United States government payloads, are only ever paid to ULA and are therefore simply an additional subsidy for ULA launch operations.

The RD-180 rocket engine, derived from the Russian RD-170 rocket engine used on the side boosters of the Soviet era Energia launch vehicle, is built by the Russian company NPO Energomash and sold to ULA under contract. As outlined in the July 17th, 2014 SpaceFlight Insider article, "With continued turmoil over RD-180, ULA mulls new rocket engine," ULA has been exploring options for alternatives to the RD-180 since almost the beginning of the crisis in the Ukraine. Under RD Amross, a joint venture between Pratt & Whitney (P&W) and NPO Energomash, P&W is licensed to produce the RD-180 in the United States, although this has never occurred. Photo c/o NASA.

Given that, and as outlined in the October 2nd, 2015 Space News post, "Bruno Says ULA Can’t Bid on GPS 3 Launch," ULA began to refuse to bid on new launch contracts, citing it's inability to compete for contracts against Space-X without the Russian rocket engine.

And, although McCain initially succeeded in getting a limit of nine Russian engines included in the FY16 DoD authorization bill, an additional provision added to the bill last week seems to have voided that limit.

Tory Bruno, looking hungry. Photo c/o SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell.
So now ULA can buy as many Russian rocket engines as it wants, maybe.

In response, and as outlined in the January 27th, 2016 Space News article, "US Air Force evaluating early end for ULA’s $800 million in yearly support," the US Air Force is now renewing efforts for the early termination of the estimate $800Mln USD annual EELV launch capability contract after ULA refused to bid on the service’s first competitive launch contract in over a decade.

The article also quoted McCain as stating that he would introduce legislation to reinstate a ban on  the US military’s use of Russian rocket engines, a move that would again limit  ULA to nine RD-180 engines for upcoming competitions for Air Force launch contracts.

The article also quoted ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye that it is “critical that ULA is able to continue to provide the reliable, affordable launch services our customers depend on while the new, American engine is being developed.” 

ULA is working with Blue Origin on the methane-fueled BE-4 engine that would power the main stage of Vulcan, ULA’s proposed Atlas 5 successor. They just don't want to give up on the revenue they'd lose on the lead up to the roll-out of the new rocket. 

Perhaps the US government will end up throwing them a new bone. 

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym for a Toronto based aerospace writer. 

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