After Russia invaded Crimea, Congress swore off Russian rocket engines. But its ban on using these rockets to launch military payloads into space was perhaps a bit too hasty. A new bill approved by Congress has found a way to nullify the ban.
United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that has long been the primary contractor for launching Defense Department payloads into space, relies on the Russian-made RD-180. ULA recently declined to bid on a launch contract due to its limited supply of rocket engines, and the Pentagon is not happy. Though ULA is developing a new engine, the BE-4 is years away from reaching the launch pad. This is, after all, rocket science that we’re talking about.
Now, to the dismay of Senator John McCain who championed the ban, it looks like Congress has found a work-around. New language tacked on to a 2016 spending bill specifies that the Air Force can choose launch providers “regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle, in order to ensure robust competition and continued assured access to space.”
Michael Listner, lawyer and founder of the consulting firm Space Law and Policy Solutions, told Popular Science he thinks lifting the ban is a good move.
“This will give ULA confidence that they will have access to the RD-180 and give them assurance to place more orders for engines,” he says. “In the short-term this means the Atlas V will be available for national security launches [to] provide a competitive product to the Falcon 9.”
ULA has long had a monopoly on military payload launches. SpaceX recently got permission to use its Falcon 9 rocket to launch military payloads as well, right around the time ULA dropped out because of the ban. If the ban is lifted, it means ULA and SpaceX will take part in the first competition for a military launch since 2006–and that could translate into savings for the U.S. government.
The lift on the ban will also affect other companies who might eventually hope to get a shot at launching military satellites, such as Orbital ATK, which will roll out its Russian-made RD-181 engines this spring.
Congress still wants to find an alternative to Russian reliance, though. The bill provides an extra $144 million to invest in developing an all-American rocket engine.