U.S. May Seek License for Russian Rocket Engines

Atlas V AV-026 OTV-2; LO2 tanking prior to launch

Even as President Barack Obama debates how to punish Russia for sending troops into Ukraine, the U.S. government is reviewing how it might obtain a license for domestic production of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine, an official said.

The U.S. relies on the engines to launch military and spy satellites into space. United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., is the sole provider of medium- and heavy-lift rockets under a program called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, or EELV. It uses the RD-180 as the main engine on its Atlas V boosters.

While the U.S. has enough of the engines to support launches for the next few years, officials are concerned that future supply could be in jeopardy because of rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia over the deployment of Russian troops and equipment into Crimea amid political and social unrest in southern Ukraine.

“The partnership we’ve had with Russia [for] that engine has been very important, I think, to both of us, but there are number of concerns the Air Force has and others have anytime we’re relying on such an important piece of equipment from vendors outside of the United States,” Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning said during a breakfast with reporters on Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been a solid partnership for years now,” he added. “We have enough of those engines to support launches well into 2016 but are monitoring closely any suggestions that are taking place in the current bilateral situation that might impact our supply.”

While Russia hasn’t yet publicly threatened to cut off the supply of the RD-180 engines to the U.S., the scenario is one raised frequently by observers who advocate for more competition and suppliers in the military launch program.

“The Atlas V cannot assure access to space when it relies on President Putin’s permission to enter space,” Elon Musk, chief executive officer of start-up rocket-maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp., said during a hearing last week of the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

The company, known as SpaceX, is seeking certification from the Air Force to be able to compete launches in the EELV program. The service has delayed a solicitation for bids from companies to fly a future mission so SpaceX can have more time to become certified, Fanning said.

Also at issue is the expensive cost of launch. EELV is projected to cost $70 billion through 2030, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

On the RD-180, Fanning acknowledged the Air Force “would like to have a more varied supply to such a critical part of our launch — the engine. We’re exploring what that is and how much that would actually cost us, even if we had the license to start up a line to produce that engine in the United States.”

There’s a “business case analysis that’s being done on that right now,” he said.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • andy

    America… you are dumb sob…

  • andy

    Nasa and other defense companies are a joke….

  • andy

    yessss buy American…nothing are made here…

    • ESA

      I can’t imagine why. It not as if our nation’s education system can’t produce citizens capable of basic spelling and punctuation, let alone building staged-combustion liquid fueled rocket engines.

  • anonymous

    Would of been nice to still have space shuttles, but NASA did not get enough funding.

    • Dfens

      Yeah, the shuttle was great. It had us trapped in low earth orbit for 30 years. It was supposed to lift 120,000 lbs to low earth orbit, but could only actually lift 1/3rd of that. It was supposed to be able to be relaunched on a monthly basis, but in reality it took over a year of rework to get one launched. It was supposed to have 5 – 9’s of reliability, but in reality it could only achieve one 9. The space shuttle single handed destroyed our manned space exploration program. Why be nostalgic for a propaganda headline?

      • LPF

        Oh horse shit, without the space shuttle the ISS would not exist, yes because of pork barrel politics it was designed to get as much support as possible by spreading it out too as many states as possible , but it was still a fantastic leap, and if they could leave the politics out of it, and rationalize the supply chain it could have been operated for a damn sight less.

      • tmb2

        The shuttle was mentioned in one of my college classes about politics and technology. It was advertised to do those things, but only if we spent heavy up front on the airframe. Instead we went cheap building it and O&M costs skyrocketed on the back end.

    • John Deere

      Bush ended the shuttle program in order to fund Orion. He was going to de-orbit the ISS, too. Did you know the USAF still has a shuttle program, independent of NASA?

    • The Space Shuttle was the biggest turd ever developed next to the ISS, which was designed to be built by the space truck that was supposed to launch 40 times per year (every 9 days!), as it was sold to Congress. Shylab was launched on a single rocket.

      • Dfens

        Shuttle showed clearly that if you wanted to launch frequently it should be the first stage that is reusable, not the final stage. The first stage works for 200 seconds and never gets outside of the earth’s atmosphere. In fact, air breathing first stage vehicles such as Boeing’s Mach 3 first stage vehicle are among the best ideas for reusable space launch vehicles. It climbs, gets up to Mach 3 drops its payload, lands and gets refueled. No tiles to screw with or easily broken carbon-carbon composites. The upper stage should be the expendable portion, not the first stage. Hell, von Braun himself made that clear.

  • Bernard

    “The Atlas V cannot assure access to space when it relies on President Putin’s permission to enter space,” Elon Musk

    ^ We need to listen to this guy.

  • Dfens

    Back when NASA designed our rockets, we had the F1 engine on the Saturn V that could take 120,000 lbs to low earth orbit. Each one generated a million and a half pounds of thrust. Today we have to rent rides on ex-Soviet Union designed rockets to get an astronaut’s sorry ass off the ground, and we don’t have anyone outside of SpaceX that knows how to design a rocket engine in any size class.

  • LPF

    I’m sorry , but is there something stopping the US from designing their own new rocket?

  • frank

    Obama will do what Putin tells him too. At least he has since he entered office.

  • Lance

    This is sad, Obama almost wants to to start WW3 over this dumb Ukraine situation and wants to cripple Russia with sanctions. NOW he wants to be nice and kiss up to them for rocket motors that we shouldn’t need. The US should have our own rockets no we have to outsource to EU and Russia? That’s just sad.

    I guess they where right to talk of NASA as in old memory in Star Trek they saw the future, LOL.

  • Steven

    It is time that our critical needs (rockets, satellites, military planes, etc.) have parts MADE IN AMERICA ONLY. If we were cut off from China and Russia, I doubt if we could build our military aircraft, military satellites and launch vehicles with the single exception of SpaceX.

    Why do we put ourselves in a bind by relying on Dictatorships, Oligarchies and generally those who are not solid allies. Oh, and by they way, Obama has alienated our closest allies because they don’t believe we can be trusted to follow through on any commitment we make, for example “The Syrian Red Line”, halting Iran’s nuclear program (Obama will “settle” for a weak and ineffective agreement to get “Peace in Our Time – shades of Neville Chamberlain).

    NASA needs REAL MANNED MISSIONS REAL SOON (not 5 years-10 years away) to destinations beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that will actually prepare us for exploring, mining and colonizing the Moon, Asteroids and later Mars. If NASA had a sustained presence on the moon, I am sure commercial interests would soon follow. If NASA would thoroughly explore the moon and nearby asteroids (with BOTH men and probes), commercial interests are eager to follow very quickly to cash in on mining and manufacturing opportunities where abundant energy and abundant raw materials exist.

  • Rich

    I’m just curious why we can’t use any of the rocket designs that were developed over that last 50 years.

    • Dfens

      That’s the thing, they can, and I thought they were: http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/04/how-nasa-b

    • WulfTheSaxon

      Largely because they keep canceling engine programs before they get a chance to prove themselves… At least they seem to have learned from past mistakes, as the J-2X program is being wrapped up nicely before being set aside in case they need it later.

  • Thomas B.

    This is one of the bigger BS I have read recently.

    the RD-180 is used on the EELV only. EELV was created with price tag in mind hence the cheaper produced Russian engines – providing not less quality though.

    Beside of that the US is able to produce every type of engine domestically if needed.

  • Big-Dean

    “stupid is as stupid does” a very bright man once said

  • mpower6428

    The whole damn concept doesn’t pass the smell test….. something else is going on here as per usual.

  • Dfens

    I wonder what ever happened to this bill introduced in the Senate last November? I’m sure Lockheed and Boeing are doing everything possible to kill it.

    The U.S. Defense Department would be required to examine the feasibility of swapping the Russian-made engine that powers the first stage of one of its workhorse rockets for a U.S. alternative under recently introduced legislation in the Senate. — http://www.spacenews.com/article/launch-report/38

  • Stephen Russell

    Give lisc to Space X & speed up CST & SNC Dreamcatcher, shuttle alone for Space Ops.

  • Hunter76

    There’s an issue with intellectual property rights here.

    All the hubbub here is pitched to high levels by the takeover of Crimea.


    These people should have argued about BO killing the Shuttle Program and turning them into museum pieces to show muslims the US brash shuttle program is no more. Sort like leveling the playing on the road to bringing us down to the level of dirt poor sub-Sahara Africa.

    • PrahaPartizan

      The Shuttle Program was scheduled to end before Obama got elected as President. Spew your bigotry someplace else or choose a different topic to address when complaining about our ELECTED President. At least we know he was elected compared to the previous Pretender squatting in the Oval Office.

      • DBM

        Doing a Kool-aide mainline IV drip aren’t you. Damned democrats voting early and often and trying to change election laws. You could always tell when Clinton/gore were lying – their lips moved and sound came out.

        • PrahaPartizan

          Not doing Kool-aid at all compared to the Republitards who lapped up the spew coming out of Condi, Rummy, Dick and the Dummy for eight years. It’s funny how the election laws all need to be changed now after those states improved voting access years ago in order to avoid hard DoJ sanctions for their voters rights violations but now find that actually allowing decent access to voting means conservative politicians get booted by real citizens. Just ‘fess up that you’d rather just go back to the slaveocracy of your forebears rather than live in a real democracy. And don’t give that spew about “a republic” because it doesn’t mean anything in this context. I’d challenge you to define just how a republic differs from a democracy in their normal usage, just in case you can’t resist the urge to quote Franklin.

  • PrahaPartizan

    Given all of the hub-bub generated over producing another engine for the F-35, one would have imagined that someone would have thought that maybe proceeding with an alternative rocket engine for the main stage of the EELV produced here in the US deserved some traction. Pound-for-pound and cubic-foot-for-cubic-foot the shuttle’s engine was the most powerful in the world, so designing an equally effective engine using kerosene/LOx should be eminently doable.

    • tiger

      It is a narrow market. Fewer firms in Space today than 40 years ago.

      • PrahaPartizan

        Just how is it a narrower market than it was 40 years ago. Are there fewer militaries interested in launchers than 40 years ago – after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the release of the nations in the Warsaw Pact? Are there fewer private enterprises involved in actual launches than 40 years ago? Yeah, there are fewer vehicle builders as some might understand them, but that was a political decision to allow monopoly power to be established in the business. We have pretty much the same number of commercial airframe builders that we did 40 years ago and every last one can mount at least two different engine designs. How is this any different?

  • kage

    What would it cost and how long would it take to reestablish NASA back to where it was before our leaders decided to reduce it to where they are now.
    When the shuttle program was shut down and we had no way to retrieve our astronauts our selves I knew that was a major screw up.
    But we continue to pump money into other countries
    economies. Just amazes me….

    • blight_

      NASA’s been in the pits since we won the space race. Nobody cares. Bread and circuses please!

      • Dfens

        Once they started outsourcing everything to aerospace contractors they went down the toilet. They should have used von Braun as a mentor to a new generation of rocket scientists, but instead they outsourced the shuttle design and have been outsourcing everything ever since. Of course, NASA was the government agency that pioneered the “profit on development” contract. They didn’t even use award fees, it was a straight “cost plus fee” contract. When the rest of the defense community saw the pork that Rockwell feasted on with the shuttle, they all wanted a part of that kind of contract.

  • Michael Morris

    What would the Russians or Chinese do if they were in our shoes? They would just copy the American engine.

  • Spacecowboy

    Launch more EELV Delta rockets. 100% US Made top to bottom. ULALaunch.com

  • Spacetoy

    Fly more Delta EELV rockets. 100% US made top to bottom

  • William_C1

    I wish Presidents would still promise space program stuff and actually do some of it as opposed to promising free stuff and then screwing everything up.

  • Patriot

    As long as the US pays 70% of its income out to those takers who want a check, the economy and its very security will remain at risk.

    • PolicyWonk

      Until the congress rescinds the “temporary” tax cuts of 2002, and rescinds the massive increase in corporate welfare programs they started (according to the CBO), this nation will remain financially/economically insolvent.

  • WulfTheSaxon

    “[…]even if we had the license to start up a line to produce that engine in the United States.”

    What is he talking about? They already have a license…

    For some more background: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2014/03/spacex-and… (and the associated forum threads)

  • tiger

    I guess the “Right Stuff” was wrong? Their Germans are better than our Germans…….

    • Dfens

      Our Germans got the bums rush out of NASA as soon as the Apollo program was over. Rockwell designed the shuttle and defense contractors have designed NASA’s rockets from then on. And look at how well that has gone for us.

  • Mat

    Before you get all high and mighty ,just look up wilkipedia os something on RD rocket engine family. these things are so superior to anthing else that it hurts ,comparing them to Nasa engine its like comparing a stock V8 to tuned and supercharged V8 . And in space every gram of weight or Booster power counts its weight in gold or platinum

    • PrahaPartizan

      The Russians decided to continue to develop their kerosene/LOx rocket designs. NASA chose to go in other directions. US liquid hydrogen fueled engines could probably be considered decades ahead of any Russian designs as well. The same likely applies to solid rockets. It all depends on where you focus your efforts. The classic kerosene/LOx rocket engine is going to be hard to beat for launch to low earth orbit once economics dominate the equation.

  • Hunter76

    The proportion of hysterical whiners here is incredible.

    NASA remains the premier space explorer. NASA’s probes dominate Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, the ice giants, near extra-solar space, and the Moon (though big achievements there have been lacking since Apollo). ESA, the strongest competitor, remains far behind. Venus, where the Russians have had some success, is the only area where NASA lags.

    The ISS, which is Man in Space for Man in Space sake, has yet to find a real mission. Certainly industry is not clamoring to get on board.

    • Maxtrue

      I will say to America bashers that the recent landing on Mars was one of the most amazing technical feats humanity has ever accomplished. That said, the fact that COSMOS won’t really re-ignite the 60s and 70s enthusiasm in science because we don’t care as much is sad. However, much of that innovation was military-related. As we are learning now, things can get ugly again. In January, China tested a hypersonic re-entry craft.

  • Is our space program that broke that we need Russian rocket engines!!!!!

    • Dfens

      According to some statistics NASA published a few years back NASA’s funding level today is equal to the average funding they got during the Apollo program. The Apollo funding profile had some peak funding levels much higher than NASA’s current budget, but then again they also had years with a lot less funding too. Given that rockets are a mature technology now, we should be able to build them for a lot less now than we did in the 1960’s. If NASA was more interested in doing their jobs and less interested in funneling money to a select few contractors they could still be doing great things.

  • If memory serves……………………….The Falcon IV cost is about, 70 million to LEO. Or about what one seat costs bumming a ride off the Russians. The Falcon IV Heavy is only exceeded in it’s lift capacity (to any orbit) by the MIGHTY Saturn V. At roughly 150 million per launch vehicle..

  • Rockerman III

    My thoughts on Putin ” if someone shows you who they are, BELIEVE THEM !

  • Peter

    To most of the posters on here. You do realise that all us Europeans used to look up the USA as something to aspire to don’t you?

    • Dfens

      You have no idea how much it sucks to disappoint our fans. If you want to lead the way out of this mess, though, feel free. It would be nice if someone would step up before the Chicoms come over the hill.

    • Rest

      That’s around the time of WWII. No more. Now is the era of the Banksters.

  • hibeam

    NASA’s new Mission is to find Muslim Mathematicians and hire them so Muslims can feel better about themselves. How is that new mission going? I have not heard a lot about it since the laughter died down.

  • bum291

    The rocket works and it’s much cheaper than starting to work on a new design. Russia just snatched Crimea, a snatch of some rocket desígn in return is nothing. I’d support such a move.

    • Dfens

      It’s cheaper to simply buy SpaceX rockets. That’s cheaper by a large margin.

  • Jim Connors

    Stalin had no problem with stealing and copying our B-29. We should return the favor and copy their engine.

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