The United Launch Alliance has received two more RD-180 engines. The Russian-made engines, used to launch satellites aboard the Atlas V vehicle, have become controversial since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (ULA)
WASHINGTON — The United Launch Alliance (ULA) received a pair of RD-180 rocket engines this week, the first delivery since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine kicked off a national debate about the use of the Russian-made engines for national security launches.
The two engines arrived Wednesday at the company’s Decatur, Ala., facility. ULA expects another three to arrive by year’s end.
ULA uses the RD-180 to power its Atlas V launch vehicle, one of two vehicles it uses for national-security launches.
Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the Obama administration issued sanctions against top Russian officials. In return, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to cut off delivery of the RD-180 for Pentagon launches.
Like many of Rogozin’s taunts, the threat never materialized. Air Force and ULA officials alike say there have been no signs of an actual slowdown or cut-off of RD-180 deliveries.
But the threat has spurred talk about developing a domestic engine, an effort ULA officials support even as they expect to rely on the RD-180 for several years more.
In Congress, a Senate panel is holding up funds for military launches until it receives more details about a potential replacement.
Top Air Force officials, including the outgoing head of Space Command, have also expressed interest in a replacement engine — if funding can be worked out. Estimates for a new engine design have fallen in the realm of five years and $1 billion, a significant amount of money for a new-start program amid sequestered budgets.
ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye acknowledged the push for a new domestic engine program in an emailed statement.
“The U.S. government also recently made clear that it supports investment in a domestic engine and we look forward to participating in the development of that public-private partnership,” Rye wrote. “While the RD-180 has been a remarkable success, we believe now is the right time to invest in a domestic engine, which is why we announced earlier this year that we have begun feasibility studies with multiple companies to build a new engine in the next five years.”
The studies Rye mentioned are a series of small contracts given to companies by ULA to begin research into what a domestic engine could look like. The company announced those contracts in June.
ULA is in the midst of change. In addition to having to move beyond using the RD-180, the company faces real competition for military space launch for the first time in the form of SpaceX.
Founded by Elon Musk, SpaceX is expected to be certified to compete for launches under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program by the end of the year, and has also sued the Air Force over a decision to award ULA a guaranteed block of launches. Musk has also kept the pressure on ULA through friendly members of Congress.
On August 12, ULA announced that Michael Gass, who has led ULA since its inception in 2006, had stepped down. Analysts linked Gass’ departure to the rise of SpaceX and noted that further changes to the company may be on the horizon.■