COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — With the replacement of the RD-180 all but inevitable, the head of a Russian space agency downplayed concerns about losing the engine's biggest buyer: the Lockheed Martin and Boeing joint venture United Launch Alliance.
ULA has long relied on the RD-180, a liquid-fueled engine produced by Russia's NPO Energomash, to power the Atlas V rocket. However, spurred by a ban on the RD-180 that will go into effect in 2022, ULA plans to adopt either Blue Origin's BE4 or Aerojet Rocketdyne's AR1, which could leave the Russian engine struggling to find other customers.
When Defense News asked about the matter at last week's Space Symposium, Igor Komarov, director general of Roscosmos, painted a bright future for the RD-180 and other Russian rocket propulsion systems.
"We have requests from some countries that are developing launchers and their expertise in space," he told reporters April 4. "We have requests to sell engines. It's not just the United States. We have good relations, good history for our sales and successful launches, very high performance and statistics, very good statistics of these launches. No one can complain."
Komarov's comments depict a rosy picture, but Energomash's situation may be more complicated, Russian space analysts told Defense News. While Energomash's takeover of Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center's manufacturing facility in Perm, Russia, has brought in new commercial business — mostly through sales of RD-276 engines for the Proton-M launch vehicle — RD-180 sales still make up a large part of the company's revenue.
Energomash in 2014 earned revenues of about $113.9 million, or 4.4 billion rubles, said Pavel Luzin, a space policy expert at Perm University in Russia. The company actually operated at a loss that year of about $30.4 million, or 1.7 billion rubles.
The next year, Energomash's revenue rose to $192.5 million, and it made a $26 million profit.
The explanation for the sudden profitability is simple, Luzin said. After Khrunichev transferred its Perm plant to Energomash in October, it made money from the sale of 48 RD-278 engines produced there.
But RD-180s still play a vital role in Energomash's business, particularly at its headquarters in Khimki, where RD-170s, RD-171Ms and RD-191s are produced. The company made nine RD-180s in both 2014 and 2015 at a price point of about $10 million a piece, Luzin estimated, which means those sales made up about half of Energomash's revenue in 2015, even with the merger of the Perm manufacturing facility.
"Without [U.S.] demand [of] RD-180 [engines] the Energomash plant in Khimki would face trouble," he said.
The company has some obvious avenues to grow its sales. Energomash co-produces the RD-191 engine with Khrunichev, which plans to use that engine in its Angara launch system. Meanwhile, Orbital ATK plans to employ the RD-181 to power its Antares rocket.
"When the U.S. abandons [the] RD-180 for Atlas V, Energomash will be able to produce enough of RD-181 engines for Antares," Luzin said. "The main client [will change], but there will be still an American client."
And even if Energomash's business prospects look grim, the Russian government will financially protect its industrial base, analysts said.
"They have guaranteed orders from Roscosmos," said one Russian space expert who provided comment on the condition of anonymity. "Revenues will decrease, but I don't think it will make much harm to Energomash in a long-term perspective."
A new RD-180?
Komarov told Sputnik News in March that ULA would adopt Blue Origin's BE4 as its engine — a sign, perhaps, that Russia had resigned itself to the end of RD-180 sales to the United States.
"It's not a secret that the United States aims at replacing our engines by probably less reliable and more expensive but indigenous U.S. engines. … You have to understand that one day they will do this," he reportedly said then.
Komarov denied ever making the comments when asked about them last Tuesday, and instead struck a more optimistic tone about potential future ULA purchases of the RD-180.
"If they continue, we say thank you. We benefit from the market. If they stop, we need to find new solutions," he said. "For the moment we are very comfortable, our position on this market, in particular in the United States. We don't want to damage the reputation. We are going to compete in the future and in this particular sphere."
"But we understand we do not need to sit and relax," he added. "We need to develop new products and increase efficiency on the technological level, and that is what we're going to do, and it's the customer's discretion to buy them."
So does that mean Russia will create a new engine to succeed the RD-180? Yes, as well as a new launch system, Komarov said, declining to say more.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.