Russian Rocket Engines OK’d for U.S. Spacecraft

Dear Reviewer,

On Tuesday evening, Dec. 15, 2015, each member of Congress got a 2,000-page omnibus spending bill dropped on his or her desk. By Friday, Dec. 17, each of them had to vote on the bill, and presumably read it to know what was in it.

I’ve not been able to discover a single member of Congress who claims to have read the bill through before voting on it. If that seems like madness, consider this: Buried in the bill is a clause reversing Congress’ outrage last year over the first-stage engines used in the Atlas V rocket to launch most military and national security satellites. It turns out that those RD-180 engines, which have powered more than 50 Atlas launches, are made in Russia. U.S. law forbids doing that sort of business with the Russians after the country invaded Crimea.

Russian-built Rocket Engine Test By NASA

A Russian-built and -designed RD-180 rocket engine is test fired by NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center Advanced Engine Test Facility in 1998. The engine is fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen, the same fuel mix used in the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon.

The Atlas V is an extremely reliable rocket operated by United Launch Alliance, which was formed in 2006 and is jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. By joining forces, the two companies created a monopoly on military and space launches. Congress found out about the first stage of the Atlas V being powered by Russian engines when Elon Musk’s SpaceX asked to be able to bid on the contracts and pointed out that his rockets are made entirely in the United States.

In the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, Congress outlawed all military and security launches after 2019 using Russian engines. ULA protested that it couldn’t certify a new engine for the first stage of the Atlas V by 2019. But Aerojet Rocketdyne leaped into the fray and said it could design and certify a new engine by then. ULA then strangely offered Jeff Bezos’ rocket company, Blue Origin, a contract to develop a new engine even though Blue Origin had never launched anything more than a one-stage rocket nor ever launched a rocket with such a high-thrust engine.

The new omnibus financing bill has language that says contracts for military or security launches can be given to a certified company “regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle, in order to ensure robust competition and continued assured access to space.”

Year after year, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are the Nos. 1 and 2 defense contractors in the country, with more money authorized for their work than any other firms.

The wording in the spending bill puts ULA back into a competitive position against SpaceX for military and national security launches, although ULA has never bid even close to what SpaceX says it would charge to launch such satellites.

Additionally, the new spending bill authorizes $227 million of public funds to help finance the replacement engine for the privately built Atlas V. The sum is about $150 million more than the White House budget requested.

Meanwhile, without those funds, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently announced its new AR-1 rocket engine, which it has partially built using 3-D printing, is on schedule to meet the 2019 deadline as a substitute for the Russian engine. ULA would only name the AR-1 a backup to the Blue Origin engine.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was furious about the reversal, saying it subsidizes Russian aggression, and he voted against the spending package.

In a passionate speech on the Senate floor on Dec. 16, McCain said, “How can our government tell European governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do than us, when we are gutting our own policy in this way? How can we tell our French allies, in particular, that they should not sell Vladimir Putin amphibious assault ships, as we have, and then turn around and try to buy rocket engines from Putin’s cronies?”

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek Signature

Stephen Petranek