Hagel Says Ukraine Situation Will Lead to Review of Use of Russian Rocket Engines

Hagel Says Ukraine Situation Will Lead to Review of Use of Russian Rocket Engines

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told a House appropriations subcommittee today that the situation in Ukraine will lead to a review of the U.S. use of Russian rocket engines.  The Atlas V, used for many national security space launches, uses Russian RD-180 engines.

During a hearing before the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee today, Hagel was asked by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), whether the Ukrainian situation demonstrates that it is time for “joint Air Force, NASA funding to develop additional capabilities for making powerful rocket engines here in the U.S.”?

Hagel replied “You’re obviously referring to the relationship we have with the Russians on the rocket motors and, well, I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue.  I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

Aderholt represents Alabama’s 4th district, close to Huntsville and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which specializes in the development of rockets and rocket engines.  It also is close to Decatur, home to United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) manufacturing facilities for the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.  ULA provides launch services to the U.S. government primarily for national security space satellites using those two rockets, which collectively are called Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs).  Issues surrounding competition for U.S. government launch services using EELVs versus “new entrants” like SpaceX are a hot topic today.

Elon Musk, founder and Chief Engineer of SpaceX,  made the case at a congressional hearing last week for phasing out the Atlas V because of its dependence on Russian engines and using his “made in America” Falcon rockets instead.  At the same hearing, ULA’s Michael Gass stressed that ULA has a two-year supply of the RD-180 engines and is confident it could produce more on its own if the supply from Russia was disrupted.

Until today, U.S. officials have downplayed the effects on U.S. space relationships of the geopolitical situation in Ukraine.  Hagel’s statement is the first public sign that it is causing second thoughts about U.S. reliance on Russian space hardware.  Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket also relies on Russian and Ukrainian hardware and, of course, the United States is completely dependent on Russia for taking crews to and from the International Space Station since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

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