It was just a week ago that Elon Musk, CEO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), filed suit against the U.S. Government for the right to bid against United Launch Alliance (ULA) for government launch contracts, and in the days since the U.S. Court of Federal Claims issued an order temporarily banning ULA from purchasing the Russian RD-180 engines that power their Atlas-V rockets until the court decides whether or not buying those engines contradicts White House sanctions issued March 16 (Executive Order 13,661). Those sanctions, which came about in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, specifically block all property (and interests in property) of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who also serves as head of both the Russian Defense Ministry and Russian Space Program.
The Russian RD-180 engines which power ULA’s Atlas-V rockets are manufactured by NPO Energomash, a corporation owned and controlled by the Russian Government. With Rogozin referenced on the “Specifically Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List” issued on April 28, and with restrictions now in place banning the export or re-export of any high technology defense articles or services with Russia, Judge Susan Braden issued the preliminary injunction and halted any purchases, and payments, from any entity subject to the control of Rogozin and the Russian Government.
The ruling issued by Judge Braden prevents “the U.S. Air Force, United Launch Alliance, and affiliates thereof, including general partners, directors, officers, employees, agents, representatives, predecessors, assigns, joint ventures, subsidiaries, and divisions, from making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity, whether governmental, corporate, or individual, that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin, unless and until the court receives the opinion of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of State, that any such purchases or payments will not directly or indirectly contravene Executive Order 13,661.”
The ruling does not affect any purchase orders placed or moneys paid prior to the April 30 order; production of engines already agreed to will continue, and no order is given to freeze delivery of those engines (five RD-180 engines are scheduled to be delivered this year). ULA has a two-year supply of Russian RD-180 engines stockpiled to minimize potential supply disruptions, and according to Michael Gass, ULA’s CEO, the company also has the blueprints and specifications for the engine and would be able to transition other mission commitments to their Delta-IV fleet of rockets if an emergent need developed.
The Pentagon, however, won’t find a replacement for the RD-180 engines anytime soon. A review by the U.S. Air Force on their dependence of the Russian-made RD-180 suggests the replacement options brought up by Michael Gass earlier in the year, but note some serious drawbacks to those ideas. Co-producing the RD-180 domestically under an existing license from NPO Energomash may be an option, but just setting up engine production is a complicated, expensive, and time-consuming process. On the other hand, utilizing only ULA’s Delta-IV rockets would mean fewer launches because of the rocket’s limited production capability.
“ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously,” said ULA General Counsel Kevin MacCary in a statement release on May 1. “SpaceX’s attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our National Security and our nation’s ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station.”
“Just like ULA, NASA and numerous other companies lawfully conduct business with the same Russian company, other Russia state-owned industries, and Russian Federation agencies,” added MacCary. “This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation’s most sensitive missions.”
“Our Falcon launch vehicles are truly made in America, designed in California and Texas, with key suppliers spread across the country, and we launch from either Vandenburg Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,” said Musk earlier this year. “This stands in stark contrast to the ULA’s most frequently flown vehicle, the Atlas-V, which cannot possibly be described as providing ‘assured access to space’ for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission. Given this development, it would seem prudent to reconsider whether the 36 core uncompeted, sole source award to ULA is truly in the best interests of the people of the United States.”
The U.S. space program’s dependence on Russia goes much deeper than ULA Atlas-V engines being used to launch national security assets; NASA is currently paying over $70 million per seat to launch U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station since retiring the space shuttle fleet in 2011, and it will be several more years before the U.S. is capable of launching crewed missions again. Those first flights will be with commercial companies such as SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, contracted with NASA for crew and supply transport to and from the ISS, but NASA won’t be able to launch crews on missions with the Orion/SLS until early next decade.
“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” said Rogozin in response to the sanctions. “I am sick and tired of these sanctions, to be honest. Essentially, the Americans want to clear us out of the space services market. They don’t understand that the sanctions will hit them like a boomerang.”
Elon Musk responded simply with the following:
In the meantime, while the drama plays out in the courts, SpaceX and ULA are both preparing to launch their next flights. SpaceX just recently launched their Dragon spacecraft on a cargo and resupply mission for NASA, and the company is on schedule to launch six Orbcomm data-messaging satellites for Orbcomm Inc. as soon as May 10. ULA is preparing to launch two missions this month, one of which is a classified mission on May 22 for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office atop an Atlas-V rocket, which will fly to space on the power of the Russian-made RD-180 engine that ULA is now banned from purchasing. ULA is also scheduled to launch the U.S. Air Force’s sixth Block 2F GPS navigation satellite atop a Delta-IV rocket as soon as May 15.