Russian Energomash Corporation has found a new customer in the United States. According to a new contract, Energomash will deliver 14 RD-181 engines to the US Orbital ATK aerospace and defense industry company over the next two years. Igor Arbuzov, the head of the Russian company, made the announcement on October 13.
The engines will be used by Antares expendable launch systems to launch the Cygnus spacecraft developed by Orbital ATK to the International Space Station as part of NASA's programs. The RD-181 engine is a modification of the RD-180, developed specifically for the US Antares rockets. The single-chamber booster is similar to the dual-nozzle RD-180 engine flown on `’s Atlas 5, producing about the thrust of its larger cousin.
NPO Energomash produces a nearly identical engine named the RD-191 for Russia’s Angara rocket family. Over the last two years, while the Antares rocket has been out of commission, Orbital ATK has flown the Cygnus to the station using an Atlas V rocket, built by United Launch Alliance and flown out of Cape Canaveral Air Force station in Florida. The Antares program is to be re-launched this month to make the Russian engines in great demand again.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) operator also plans to purchase 10-20 of Russia's RD-180 space rocket engines for heavy-lift Atlas V vehicles. The Russian engine will used at least through 2019. According to Arbuzov, a new contract could be signed after the November 8 presidential elections in the United States. The crew had already been selected and is being trained. The first unmanned test launch is expected in 2017 to be followed by a manned test launch is scheduled for 2018.
The engines that have already been shipped to the United States will be used for both test launches and the first manned flight along with those that are to be delivered between 2017 and 2019. The US has been using the Russian engines for 13 years. The program has been being implemented without a hitch.
There is opposition in Congress to the use of Russian engines. For instance, Republican Senator John McCain strongly opposes the idea. In 2014, US lawmakers banned the use of Russian engines after Crimea became part of Russia. In 2015, the Congress had to ease the ban to keep the US space program going.
ULA and the Pentagon have maintained that Russian engines are cheaper than the US alternatives. The RD-180 is used for the Atlas rocket, the workhorse of the US space fleet. A total of 70 Atlas V rockets with Russian RD-180 boosters had been launched successfully so far. If the Pentagon abandons the RD-180 engines, the cost of launching key satellites will skyrocket. For instance, the only alternative for launching large satellites into high orbit is Delta, which costs about a third more per launch. If there is a problem with Delta, the US will not be able to get missile warning and surveillance satellites into orbit. The much praised SpaceX rockets, which were recently certified for military launches, can't reach four of the eight critical military orbits.
The Air Force and some senior Office of Secretary of Defense officials have advocated using 18 RD-180 rocket engines until some combination of ULA, SpaceX and Blue Origin deploy rockets that have demonstrated they are reliable enough to loft hugely expensive and hard-to-replace military and national security satellites into orbit.
«We can hold our noses, buy RD-180s until that situation is created…and fly Atlases with RD-180s. The alternative is to fly our payloads on Delta, which is technically feasible, but much more expensive. And so, that’s the choice», Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told the Senate Appropriation defense subcommittee. «And we have chosen the choice of going Atlas, recognizing the distasteful fact that that necessitates purchases of up to 18 more RD-180 engines».
To break the dependency on Russian engines, in 2014 ULA has partnered up with Blue Origin, a private US-based aerospace research and development company, to develop the BE-4 LOX/methane engine to replace the RD-180. However, Arbuzov said these replacement plans could stretch well into at least until 2020 or, even more likely, 2024.
The US space program, including military satellites, depends on Russian technology. The issue is important enough to lift the sanctions on the Russian cutting edge engines. At the same time, the United States openly exerts pressure on the European Union to make it keep anti-Russian sanctions in force.
The sanctions make Europe suffer much more than the US.
US Senator McCain is right to say, «This is the height of hypocrisy! How can our government tell European countries and governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do, when we are gutting our own policy in this way?»
The rocket engines’ deal testifies to the fact that Russia and the US continue to cooperate in the field of space research, where America badly needs Russian cutting edge technology. It is also an example of egregious hypocrisy and double standards when Washington makes the allies do the dirty work for it. This is a very serious matter for the Europeans to think about. It also puts into question the very expediency of the sanctions. Is it worth it, if nobody but the US – the initiator of the sanctions - pays Moscow billions of dollars for rocket engines to boost Russian economy?