Tensions Between US And Russia Leave Air Force Scrambling For Launch Alternatives
May 16, 2014

Potential Short, Long Term Winners And Losers From US-Russia Space Conflict

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Ongoing tensions between the US and Russia have left the US Air Force (USAF) scrambling for alternatives to Russian-built rocket engines, but could pay off big for some American companies in the long run, according to various media reports published earlier this week.

The recent announcement by Russian officials that they would no longer allow the US access to its rocket engines, and would keep the USAF from using them to launch national security satellites, have left officials in the military exploring alternative methods of getting their probes into orbit, Julian E. Barnes of the Wall Street Journal said on Wednesday.

The relationship between the Air Force and Moscow was forged following a string of failed launches in the 1990s resulting in the loss of six satellites. At the time, the Clinton administration was looking to strengthen ties with Russia, so when the USAF needed reliable and inexpensive new rocket engines, the decision was made to use Russian-made ones that were deemed “sophisticated and reliable space technology” at the time, said Barnes.

One of the companies looking to take advantage of the international tension is SpaceX, who has sued the US government seeking to end the Air Force’s deal with the joint Boeing/Lockheed Martin venture United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA outfits the Atlas rockets it uses to launch satellites into space with Russian-made engines under a multi-launch contract signed in June 2013, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has taken issue with that.

According to Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport, Musk argues that American security interests in space should not be so reliant on the Russians, and that ULA should not have been given the deal without competition. Musk argues that SpaceX rockets would be able to deliver Air Force satellites into orbit far more economically, and that the military should cancel the existing contract and give his company time to complete a certification process.

“Musk also argued that ULA’s use of the Russian-made RD-180 engines could violate US sanctions,” Davenport said. “Within days of the suit being filed, US Court of Federal Claims Judge Susan G. Braden issued an injunction, prohibiting ULA from buying the Russian engines. She ultimately lifted the injunction after several government agencies said the Russian manufacturer was not subject to the sanctions.”

Earlier this week, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced that the export of Russian-made engines for use in US military launches would be prohibited, and threatened to end his country’s participation on the International Space Station after the year 2020.

ULA officials said in a statement that it was not aware of the export ban, but added that if it was true, “it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened US military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station,” Davenport said. The firm added that it had contingency plans in place to deal with such issues, as well as a two-year inventory of engines on hand.

The conflict between the two nations, and the potential loss of Russian technology, makes it “nearly inevitable” that the US will move forward with development of homegrown rocket technology for the first time in over three decades, Lexington Institute analyst Dr. Loren Thompson told the Financial Times.

Likewise, Sergey Gugkaev, the chief executive of a Russian-controlled satellite launch contractor based in the US called Sea Launch, told reporters Robert Wright and Mark Odell that it was likely that such domestic development would occur, but that it would take multiple years before a new engine would be usable. He said that Russian propulsion systems were “the best in the market” and would remain so “for several years at least.”

“Replacing in particular the Atlas V RD180 with a US domestic engine will take, I would say, five to eight years,” Gugkaev added. NASA is currently already working on a new space launch system, and plans to have it ready for a test flight by 2017. However, Wright and Odell point out that this new spacecraft would build on existing Space Shuttle technology and would not be intended to travel to the ISS.

However, while Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Davenport that the conflict between the US and Russia would have short-term implications, it also gives the US the ability to avoid becoming completely dependent on Russia. Severing the relationship would “have enduring effects for years and decades,” he added, “[but] to be blunt, over the long term, they need us more than we need them.”