Americans May Lose Russian Rocket Engines

August 28, 2013

The Russian Federation Security Council is deciding the question of prohibiting the export of RD-180 engines to the USA for the Atlas family of rockets. The Atlas rockets have played an important role in several U.S. space missions, especially since the ending of the NASA Space Shuttle Program. Atlas V rockets launched the Mars rover Curiosity into space.

Meanwhile, Russia’s own space program is facing severe cutbacks, which could impact the development of a launching base for the Soyuz-2 rocket which plays a critical role in supplying the International Space Station. – Ed.

Russia may halt delivery to the US of RD-180 rocket engines for use in Atlas V rockets. The question of the halting of deliveries is currently being reviewed by the Russian Federation Security Council, an informed source at Roskosmos [Russian Federal Space Agency] told Izvestiya.

“With the help of rockets from the Atlas family, Americans can launch a military payload,” said the Roskosmos representative. “Before, Russia would look the other way when they did that, but now the question has been raised of the appropriateness of cooperation of this nature. At a Security Council session, it was noted in particular that the Atlas V rockets are used for launching a promising space shuttle which essentially is a new universal space weapon, potentially dangerous including for the Russian satellite constellation. Therefore the question is now being raised about ending the delivery of the RD-180 to the Americans after 2015.”

The blueprint of the RD-180 engine from the non-governmental chemical company Energomash was declared the victor at a competition for design and delivery of engines for the first stage of modernized carriers in the Atlas family in early 1996. The RD-180 is a modification of the RD-170 model created within the framework of the Energy Storm program.

Essentially, the RD-180 is half the RD-170 engine – the most powerful of the liquid-propellant rocket engines — but it was not in demand after the closure of the Energy Storm program. In the estimation of Vitaly Lopota, president of the Energiya S.P. Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation, when the RD-170 engines were put into operation (in the late 1980s), the USSR was ahead of the USA in technologies for liquid-fuel rocket engine building by at least 50 years. Under an agreement in 1996, Energomash, through the joint venture RD-Amros pledged to deliver 50 RD-180 engines under a firm contract with also a 51% option agreement. More than 60 engines at $11-15 million a piece have been delivered to the US already.

The Atlas V rockets with the RD-180 engines are regularly used to launch military installations. For example, with the help of the Atlas V, the newest AENF communication satellites were launched for use by the US Air Force. An experimental orbiting plane, the Boeing X-37, has been launched three times by an Atlas V rocket, the last time in December 2012.

Vladimir Solntsev, executive director of Energomash believes that the decision to cancel the export of the RD-180 will have a negative effect on his enterprise:

“We have already formulated our opinion on this issue, and presented it to those at the top, and I cannot predict the response. Especially because it does not depend on us. If they make such a decision, then they make it. Although, of course, for us, this is not good. The RD-180 flies only on the Atlas V for now; previously it had been planned to use it as a component in the rocket carrier Rus’ M; however work on its creation has been halted. If RD-180 production is ended, we will have to think what we can use to fill production capacities,” he said.

Energiya (which is the managing company for Energomash) is against halting the export of the rocket engines to the US:

“These are intrigues by the leadership of Roskosmos, they took away the production of the RD-191 engines from Energomash (this is a first-class engine for the Angara carrier), and now they are trying to block export activity,” believes a source in the corporation’s leadership who spoke with Izvestiya.

Roskosmos denies the claim. A source in the Russian space agency clarified that in July, the Security Council made official inquiries regarding the export of rocket engines to four agencies: the Defense Ministry, the Ministry of Industrial Trade, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and Roskosmos, requesting that justification for the exports be supplied.

“Roskosmos has not yet submitted its opinion, but it is a complicated and many-sided issue, and it is hard to take one unambiguous position,” the source said.

Earlier, Vladimir Popovkin, head of Roskosmos, had advocated continuing international cooperation with delivery of the engines to the US.

“The Americans buy the RD-180 engines from Energomash’s production and now are in negotiations with us about the possibility of acquiring future RD-193 engines to design their own carriers,” Popovkin said in an interview with Izvestiya in December 2012. “They were convinced that the Russian plant was producing a quality product. They are the best liquid-propellant rocket engines in the world. And for them, it’s easier to buy them than to catch up in this field. Therefore it is extremely important to preserve Energomash and provide this development,” he said.

“In my opinion, it’s stupid to halt the export of the rocket engines to the US ,” Ivan Moiseyev, scientific director for the Institute for Space Policy. “This will be a blow not only against us. Financially, we lose money from contracts and our reputation suffers, since foreign partners are not going to want to do business with us after that. Understandably, the Americans will not suffer very much for this, and will not stop launching military satellites into space. And we will have to cease production of the RD-180, because nobody else needs these engines,” he said.

“Such conversations are being heard against the background of the so-called ‘pause in relations’ between the Russian Federation and the USA, but in my view, this idea specifically is stupid,” says Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Center for Analysis for Strategies and Technologies. “We ourselves only win from cooperating with the USA, selling them engines and then ourselves buying something military from the French and the Israelis. In fact, money from South Korea helped us to complete the new engine for the Angara – if there had not been an inter-governmental agreement on assistance in the creation of the KSLV (the first Korean space missile built with the use of Russian technologies), it is not clear at all when that engine would have been finished. Ending international cooperation in this situation is the worst possible scenario,” he said.

The press office for the Space Systems division of Lockheed Martin, where the Atlas carriers are made, could not provide a comment by press time.