In a major military space policy shift, United Launch Alliance (ULA) will be allowed to procure more Russian RD-180 engines for the Atlas-V rocket, clearing the way for ULA competition with Spacex for military spacecraft launches. The budget action has set off one of most bitter congressional fights in decades involving the U.S. space program and foreign policy.
The change is being made possible by Congressional budget action to lift the ban on Russian engine procurements and to provide new funding for such buys.
The dramatic news came with the Dec. 16 release of the $1.1 trillion, 2000 page, 2016 Omnibus Spending Bill agreed to by House and Senate budget conferees.
ULA declined to comment on the breakthrough, which is a tremendous win for the company and its thousands of employees who will now be able to go head-to-head against SpaceX, which is preparing to return the Falcon-9 to flight this month after a midsummer accident.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who led opposition to the ban, said that to continue it would be “reckless” and endanger U.S. assured access to space for national security payloads, most of which are launched on the Atlas-V. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter agrees with the action.
The move, however, drew thunderous opposition on the floor of the Senate from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz,), who opposed lifting the ban because of outrage over rewarding Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and its bombing of U.S. allies in Syria.
“This is outrageous. And it is shameful. And it is the height of hypocrisy, especially for my colleagues who claim to care about the plight of Ukraine and the need to punish Russia for its aggression.,” McCain said. He vowed to continue his opposition in the 2017 budget cycle.
“A rocket factory in Alabama [ULA’s] may benefit from this provision. Boeing, headquartered in Illinois, may benefit from this decision. But have no doubt, the real winners today are Vladimir Putin and his gang of thugs running the Russian military-industrial complex,” McCain said.
As restrictions on the 860,000 lb. thrust RD-180 were being lifted, advances were also announced on the development of a U.S. replacement for the RD-180 to regain U.S. production capability for large hydrocarbon engines.
A new engine under development could theoretically replace the RD-180 on the Atlas-Vs before ULA’s methane fueled Vulcan rocket is ready around 2020, or provide an option for the Vulcan if the Blue Orgin’s BE-4 methane engine program falters. It also could enable future competitors that might use such a U.S. developed hydrocarbon replacement. The new milestones are:
- Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 design review:
The company announced it this week completed a key design review for its 500,000 lb. thrust AR1 being designed as a replacement for the RD-180. “This is one of the most important design reviews the program will undergo during its development,” said Julie Van Kleeck, vice president of Advanced Space & Launch Programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne.
During the review, each of the 18 primary components and subsystems on the AR1 were thoroughly analyzed to ensure that each works properly and that once integrated, will function together seamlessly, the company said. The review moves the AR1 program toward full-scale engine testing in 2017, and delivery of a flight-qualified engine ready for certification by 2019.
To date, AR1 hardware has undergone more than 155 staged-combustion tests. “We have achieved every milestone in our AR1 schedule to be ready for 2019. We have in place the production facilities, tools, equipment, a supply base and, most importantly, highly skilled employees to manufacture the AR1 engine to meet the national security needs of our nation.” said Aerojet Rocketdyne CEO and President Eileen Drake.
- USAF Booster Propulsion Technology Maturation contracts:
Nearly $3 million in contracts were awarded this week to Tanner Research; Moog Inc; and Johns Hopkins University as part of the Air Force rocket engine technology effort to help companies like Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne develop alternatives to the Russian RD-180.
A total of 6-8 contracts worth more than $35 million are to be award by mid winter for such technology work, said USAF Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command.
Whether USAF will give ULA the time to prepare an Atlas V bid against Spacex for the first GPS III launch in 2018 is still to be determined. But release of the ban sets up ULA to procure all of the RD-180 engines required to compete for both civilian and national security payloads in the future.
The language in the bill was a tremendous blow (and apparent surprise) to McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who along with that committee have been fighting hard against lifting the ban (AmericaSpace Dec. 11, 2015; Oct. 29, 2015; Sept. 2, 2015).
McCain was outmaneuvered however in the appropriation process by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) where Boeing is headquartered and by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) from where the Atlas V is assembled.
A single paragraph authored by Shelby and secretly inserted into the 2016 spending bill is all that it took to overturn the Russian ban and approve more RD-180s. Shelby’s paragraph states:
”None of the funds made available by this Act for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle service competitive procurements may be used unless the competitive procurements are open for award to all certified providers of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class systems: Provided, That the award shall be made to the provider that offers the best value to the government: Provided further, that notwithstanding any other provision of law, the award may be made to a launch service provider competing with any certified launch vehicle in its inventory 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.”
According to Marcia Smith who heads SpacePolicyOnline.com, the specific words “notwithstanding any other provision of law” makes irrelevant the earlier Defense Authorization ban on Russian engine procurements.
Separate votes on the bill by the full House and Senate were to take place by late today (Dec. 18). If the bill is approved as expected, it will go to President Barack Obama for his signature as early as today. The RD-180 issue is barely a footnote to most members of Congress.
Sen. McCain said he spoke out on the Senate floor, “to call attention to the triumph of pork barrel parochialism in this year’s Omnibus Appropriations Bill—in particular, a policy provision that was airdropped into this bill, in direct contravention to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which will have U.S. taxpayers subsidize Russian aggression and “comrade capitalism.”
Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which restricted the Air Force from using Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for national security space launches — engines that are manufactured by [Energomash], a Russian company controlled by some of Putin’s top cronies.
“Our nation should not rely on Russia to access space, but because it is simply immoral to help subsidize Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and line the pockets of Putin’s gang of thugs who profit from the sale of Russian rocket engines,” said McCain.
He said, “The FY16 NDAA, including its provision limiting the use of Russian rocket engines, was debated for months. The Committee on Armed Services had a vigorous debate over this important issue. An amendment was offered to maintain the restriction on the Air Force’s use of Russian rocket engines, and in a positive vote of the Committee, the amendment was adopted.
“We then considered hundreds of amendments to this defense authorization bill on the Senate floor over a period of two weeks, and did so transparently and with an open amendment process. There was not one amendment called up to change the provision of the NDAA concerning RD-180 rocket engines.”
“The Senate had this debate. We had ample time and opportunity to have this debate. And through months of this fulsome debate, no Senator came to the Senate floor to make the case that we need to buy more Russian rocket engines. No Senator introduced an amendment on the floor to lift the restriction on buying more Russian rocket engines. To the contrary, the Senate and the full Congress voted, overwhelmingly and repeatedly, to maintain this restriction. This is a policy issue, and it was resolved, as it should be, on the defense policy bill,” said McCain.
“And yet, here we stand with a 2000-page omnibus appropriations bill, crafted in secret with no debate, which most of us are seeing for the first time. And buried within it is a policy provision that would effectively allow unlimited purchases and use of Russian rocket engines,” McCain said.
“I take no pleasure in saying that. I believe that avoiding the year-over-year conflict over this matter between our authorizing and appropriations committees is in our nation’s best interest. Such back-and-forth only delays our shared desire to end our reliance on Russian technology from our space launch supply chain, while injecting instability into our national security space launch program. That instability threatens the reliable launch of our most sensitive national security satellites and the stability of the fragile U. S. industrial base that supports them.”
“I simply cannot allow Senator Shelby, Senator Durbin, the Appropriations Committee, or any other member of this body to craft a take-it-or-leave-it omnibus spending bill that allows a monopolistic corporation [in this case ULA] to do business with Russian oligarchs to buy overpriced rocket engines that fund Russia’s belligerence in Crimea and Ukraine, its support for Assad in Syria, and its neo-imperial ambitions,” said McCain.
“I will not stand for that, and none of you should either,” he told the Senate.
Sen McCain’s full RD-180 opposition speech on the Senate floor can be read HERE.