Nelson: SASC Will Deal with RD-180 Issue Next Week

Nelson: SASC Will Deal with RD-180 Issue Next Week

In a speech on the Senate floor yesterday (May 14), Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) said that the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will take up the issue of how to respond to Russia’s declaration that its RD-180 rocket engines cannot be used for launching U.S. military spacecraft when it marks up the FY2015 defense authorization bill next week.

SASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee will markup its portion of the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on May 20 and the full committee will markup the bill over the subsequent three days (May 21-23).  All sessions of the markup are closed to the public.

Nelson took to the floor to provide a brief history of cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia in response to what he said were multiple questions by colleagues and the media.  Nelson has considerable expertise on space matters as chair of the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  He also flew into space on a 1985 space shuttle mission when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

What action SASC is contemplating was not mentioned.  Nelson laid out the issues and rued the fact that U.S.-Russian space cooperation is being impacted by geopolitical events since even during the Cold War the two countries managed to work together in space.  Citing the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in particular, he noted that the leaders of the American and Russian crews, Gen. Tom Stafford (Ret.) and Gen. Alexei Leonov (Ret.), remain close friends today and are representative of the close ties between other American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts.  

Emphasizing the complexity of the issues posed if Russia bans sales of the RD-180 engines, he went on to explain that two of NASA’s commercial crew contenders, Boeing and Sierra Nevada, plan to use the Atlas V rocket for their CST-100 and Dream Chaser spacecraft. It is that rocket that uses Russia’s RD-180 engines and would be affected if Russia goes through with a threat issued by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin earlier this week to prohibit use of Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. military satellites.  While those are not military satellites, Nelson is worried that the ban could affect civilian launches, too. 

Rogozin’s threat was not only about the RD-180 engines for the Atlas V, but also Russia’s NK-33 engines used by Orbital Sciences Corporation for its Antares rockets.   Orbital has a large supply of those engines already in the United States that are refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26.  Antares currently is used only for NASA missions and since Orbital already has the engines here, it is not clear that Rozogin’s threats would disrupt those activities.

The Air Force has a study underway to examine options in case the RD-180s no longer are available. The United Launch Alliance (ULA), which produces and launches Atlas V, says that it has a two-year supply of those engines and could, if necessary, shift satellites to the more expensive Delta IV, which has American-made engines.  Nelson said that the topic “will be an issue” when SASC marks up the NDAA next week and if Rogozin follows through with the threat “we’re going to have to swing into action pretty quick.”

The House Armed Services Committee added about $200 million to the FY2015 Air Force budget to begin development of a new U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the RD-180 when it marked up its version of the bill.   (The HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee added $220 million, which the full committee approved, but it also reduced that subaccount, Aerospace Propulsion, by $23 million for “liquid rocket engine combustion technologies and advanced liquid engine technologies.”)

Rogozin made his comments in response to sanctions imposed on him and other Russian government officials because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  He also said that Russia will have to think about whether to agree with NASA’s plans to extend operations of the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2020.  He did say, however, that Russia needs the ISS until 2020, suggesting that there are no plans to impact ISS operations before then.   Indeed, three ISS crew members returned to Earth on Tuesday and three more are scheduled for launch on May 28.  Russia is the only country currently capable of transporting crews to and from the ISS since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.

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