ULA Orders More RD-180 Rocket Engines

ULA Orders More RD-180 Rocket Engines

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that it has ordered more RD-180 rocket engines to power its Atlas V rockets.  The number of RD-180s ULA is allowed to procure has been the subject of intense controversy in Congress.

ULA said the new engines would be used for “potential civil and commercial launch customers.”   The restrictions that were placed on the number of RD-180s the company could obtain in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) applied only to national security space launches, but in any case they were superseded by language in the Consolidated Appropriations Act enacted last week.   Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and primary architect of the NDAA’s restrictive language, lambasted two members of the Senate Appropriations Committee who championed ULA interests — Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL).  ULA builds its rockets in Shelby’s state of Alabama.   ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Boeing is headquartered in Durbin’s state of Illinois.

McCain wants to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch national security satellites and payments to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his “cronies” as McCain often says.  He also supports SpaceX and its determination to compete against ULA for national security launch contracts.  ULA has held a virtual monopoly on Air Force launch contracts since it was created in 2006.  it launches the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, referred to as Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV).  The Delta IV does not use Russian engines, but is very expensive and ULA concedes it is not cost competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon rockets.

ULA, the Air Force and McCain all agree on the need to develop an American engine to replace the RD-180.  The question is over timing.  McCain wants ULA to begin using an American alternative by 2019 while ULA and the Air Force insist that it will take until 2021 or 2022 until a new engine is developed, tested and certified.  ULA and Blue Origin announced a partnership last year to use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for a new version of the Atlas V, called Vulcan.  ULA later announced that it also is working with Aerojet Rocketdyne on that company’s AR1 engine in case the BE-4 does not perform as planned.

ULA said today that it is “moving smartly” with Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne “but this type of development program is difficult and takes years to complete” and a smooth transition to a new engine is essential.

The announcement did not state the contract value or when the engines will be delivered.  The engines are made by Russia’s Energomash and sold to ULA via

ULA primarily launches military and intelligence satellites, but also launches spacecraft for NASA and NOAA and occasionally for commercial customers.  The national security launch market is expected to decline in the next several years and ULA is seeking more civil and commercial customers.  Boeing, for example, plans to launch its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle on Atlas V.  Starliner is being developed as a NASA-Boeing public private partnership with the goal of taking crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  Sierra Nevada planned to Atlas V for its Dream Chaser spacecraft.  Although it lost out to Boeing and SpaceX on NASA’s commercial crew program, it is competing in the second round of NASA’s commercial cargo contracts to service the ISS and would need Atlas V for those launches if it is successful.

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that ULA is buying the engines from Energomash.  Strictly speaking, ULA’s contract is with the U.S. company RD AMROSS, which contracts with Energomash on ULA’s behalf.  ULA’s announcement does not specify who it contracted with, but Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, tweeted that Energomash and RD AMROSS have entered into an agreement for more RD-180s.

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