For the past few years, there’s been a cold war going on…between SpaceX, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rocket company and the Russians, who supply all the engines for Department of Defense national security launches.
In April, 2014, Musk announced that SpaceX was filing suit against the government for its sole source contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) using Russian-sourced RD-180 engines.
The latest Air Force launch contract dated to December 2013 guarantees the “block buy” purchase of 36 rocket cores from ULA for national security launches for the DOD, NRO and other government agencies, at a significantly reduced cost compared to earlier contracts. A further 14 cores were to be awarded on a competitive basis, including bids from SpaceX and others who seek to gain Air Force certification.
This has come to a head with the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) approved by the Senate and now being considered by the House.
While the Air Force and Defense Department leadership agree that the U.S. should transition to an affordable, domestically-produced alternative to the RD-180 as soon as is practical, the Senate NDAA authorizes just nine engines, five of which have already been committed to other missions. This shortage would hinder critical U.S. military access to space until a U.S.-produced alternative is ready several years from now.
The question comes down to this: Should the government fast track the SpaceX Falcon 9, with just nine launches under its belt, against the proven Delta IV and Atlas V rockets which use the Russian RD-180 engines? The Delta and Atlas rockets are manufactured by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing (that, between the two of them, make just about everything the U.S. buys that flies). The latest versions of those rockets have a nearly flawless success record.
Arizona Sen. John McCain has tried to cut down America’s reliance on Russian engines for several years, and finally got his way with the Senate bill. Military contacts tend to be fairly–let’s call them “chippy”–when billions of dollars are on the line. It might be about national security and self-reliance, but it’s also about money.
Setting aside the politics for a moment, there appears to be a consensus in Congress and the Defense Department that the military should stop using the RD-180 engine. The real questions are: how quickly should the transition occur, which alternatives should be used, and how much will it cost? Attempting to cut the military off from the RD-180 too soon risks creating a self-fulfilling prophesy: a gap in military launch capabilities. On the other hand, as long as the military continues to buy RD-180 engines it is undermining U.S. sanctions and extending a window of vulnerability Russian President Vladimir Putin could exploit.
ULA has been vocal in its opposition to McCain.
“This guy right here, John McCain, who basically doesn’t like us; he’s like this with Elon Musk,” [ULA Engineering Vice President Brett] Tobey said during a March 15 presentation at the University of Colorado-Boulder, according to audio posted by Space News. “So Elon Musk says, ‘Why don’t you guys go, why don’t you go after United Launch Alliance and see if you can get that engine to be outlawed?’ ”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter requested the Pentagon’s Inspector General to open an investigation into the Tobey’s remarks, resulting in the ULA VP’s resignation. Certainly Musk wants his share of the lucrative DoD launch contract, but Tobey isn’t totally wrong either.
On one hand, cutting off the RD-180 engines too soon may leave the DoD without a tested, approved rocket to launch critical national security assets into orbit. That would be a bad thing. But on the other hand, giving Vladimir Putin control over whether we launch those assets would also be a bad thing, nyet?
This battle has been brewing for a while, and some in the rocket community believe that if the Russians are selling rocket engines, we should continue to buy them, while working out a transition. But McCain may also be right, in that without a knife to their throats, the DoD won’t be in any rush to move toward another solution, which–with current budget restrictions and the tendency of defense contractors to move at the speed of snot in January when milking contracts–are years away.
Limiting the RD-180 purchases (though to a larger number than the 9 the current Senate bill authorizes) may be the best way to get things moving a bit faster. Or we may find ourselves kneeling at Musk’s feet when the Russians cut us off–or worse, dropping a billion dollar defense satellite into the ocean.