Russia’s retaliation to new U.S. sanctions is likely going to place American access to space at risk.
To get heavy payloads into orbit, American rockets like the Atlas V use Russia’s powerful RD-180 engine—an engine that previous rounds of U.S. sanctions have studiously exempted.
But now, following the Trump administration’s decision to retaliate for the Kremlin poisoning a former spy and his daughter, Russian officials are threatening to block sales of the RD-180 to the Americans.
Russian lawmaker Sergei Ryabukhin, who heads the budget committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, responded to the new sanctions by vowing: “The United States needs to finally understand that it’s useless to fight with Russia, including with the help of sanctions.”
According to the Russian news agency RIA, Ryabukhin found a place to hit Washington where it’s soft: the rocket engine.
Losing access to the RD-180 would make American access to space—something Donald Trump desires enough to create a separate military service branch devoted to it—much more complicated. The engine helps get everything from satellites to astronauts into orbit.
With the RD-180 producing as much as a million pounds of thrust, the Boeing-Lockheed Martin consortium known as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) doesn’t have a better, American-made alternative for its Atlas-V, which carries many of the U.S.’ heaviest payloads off-world.
RD-180s have powered more than 75 U.S. space launches since 2002. Payloads have included the Curiosity Mars rover and the U.S. Air Force's top-secret X-37B space plane. NASA plans to use an Atlas V to boost its new Boeing-made space capsule on its first manned mission in 2019.
NASA did not immediately have a response. A Defense Department spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
NASA is counting on the Boeing capsule and a separate capsule under development by SpaceX to restore its ability to send astronauts into space, a capability NASA temporarily gave up when it retired its last Space Shuttle in 2011. For the past seven years, the space agency has rented seats aboard Russian capsules for trips to the International Space Station.
The United States doesn’t currently make its own rocket engines in the same class as the RD-180. Instead, ULA buys RD-180s from Russian company Energomash at a cost of around $10 million apiece. U.S. officials have been careful to exempt RD-180s from sanctions Washington imposed in the aftermath of Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea.
It's worth noting that ULA is Energomash’s only customer for RD-180s, although the company does make different engine types for other buyers. Energomash exports the RD-180s to the United States via a joint venture with American firm United Technologies. “We would like to make more engines and sell them in the U.S.,” Michael Baker, the American CEO of the joint venture, said in 2017.
In 2016 Congress inserted language in the Pentagon budget that allowed ULA to buy 18 additional RD-180s but bans imports of the motors after 2022. The 2016 ban helped to spur U.S. development of heavy rocket engines. U.S. space firms Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne are both developing new engines roughly in the same class as the RD-180.
But Aerojet Rocketdyne said it could begin testing of its AR1 rocket motor only as early as 2019. Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, began test-firing its own BE4 motor in March.
“While the details for how and when the RD-180 will be replaced are not yet settled, the consensus within the U.S. Congress and executive branch remains that the United States must end its reliance on the RD-180,” the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies explained in a recent study.
ULA is scheduled to receive, no later than 2019, the last of the 18 RD-180s Congress has allowed it to buy. It’s not clear whether Ryabukhin’s proposed Russian ban on RD-180 exports would cut into ULA's current order or would only apply to possible future orders.