Senate Reaches Agreement on Russian RD-180 Engines

Senate Reaches Agreement on Russian RD-180 Engines

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) brokered an agreement among Senators who have been at sharp odds over how to transition U.S. rocket launches away from reliance on Russian RD-180 engines to a new American-made engine.  The Nelson amendment passed the Senate this morning by voice vote as part of the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  The NDAA itself then passed the Senate by a vote of 85-13.

In brief, the compromise sets December 31, 2022 as the end date for awarding contracts to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for Atlas V launches of national security satellites that would use RD-180 engines.  It also limits to 18 the number of RD-180s that can be used between the date that the FY2017 NDAA is signed into law (enacted) and that end date.

Sen. Nelson’s office provided SpacePolicyOnline.com with a
copy of the amendment
as passed.

The amendment that passed originated as one written by Nelson and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), that was then modified by one from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  McCain chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) and has been the strongest voice for limiting the number of RD-180s to half that approved by this compromise and for a 2019 cut-off date.

The issue has pitted McCain and SASC against Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) of the Senate Appropriations Committee, creating a schism between the Senate committees that authorize DOD activities (SASC) and pay for them (Appropriations).

Durbin praised Nelson for being the “bridge over troubled waters” who was able to find a compromise between the starkly different positions.  

The Nelson amendment also settles a related issue.  The version of the FY2017 NDAA that emerged from SASC (S. 2943, S. Rept. 114- 255) would have prevented the Air Force from awarding launch contracts to bidders that use rocket engines from Russia, basically making ULA’s Atlas V ineligible for future contracts.  The defense appropriations bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee (S. 3000, S. Rept. 114-263) conversely said that awards could be made to any certified provider regardless of the rocket engine’s country of origin. The compromise states that contracts may be awarded to any certified launch service provider, but Russian engines may be used only for launches in the phase 1(a) and phase 2 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) procurements.  Phase 2 runs through 2022.  (The Government Accountability Office has a useful report that explains the EELV procurement strategy and its different phases.)

The amendment does not specify RD-180s, but instead bounds the use of Russian rocket engines generally for national security launches.  ULA is currently the only company that offers national security launch services using rockets powered by Russian engines, but the language would apply to any company offering such services.  Orbital ATK, for example, uses Russian RD-181 engines for its Antares rocket, which launches cargo spacecraft for NASA to the International Space Station.  If it were to bid for EELV launches, it presumably would be subject to these limits.

Also, although the cut-off date of December 31, 2022 is for awarding contracts, the limit on the number of engines — 18 — refers to how many may be “used” between the date the law is enacted and that date.

The House passed its version of the NDAA last month.  It permits 18 engines and allows any certified provider to win launch contracts.  The two chambers must reach agreement on the NDAA overall, but while there are still some differences on this issue, it appears to be close to resolution.

Note:  This article has been updated and clarified to say that December 31, 2022 is the date through which contracts may be awarded regardless of the rocket engine’s country of origin, rather than the date by which they must be used.

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