After Atlantis took its final trip in July of 2011, the US space program has largely depended upon the Atlas V rocket platform to push the boundaries of the final frontier. The Atlas program now acts as the sole method of launching some of the US’s most important orbital crafts including GPS satellites, the Boeing X-37, and Curiosity, the Mars rover.
The Atlas V platform is constructed by United Launch Alliance. The vast majority of the platform showcases the highest level of technological advancement in space vehicles. Furthermore, the platform can adapt to a wide variety of payloads, ensuring that the vast breadth of US missions can be completed. However, this rocket also hides a flaw that not only places its survival in jeopardy, but also the United States’ strength in the international community.
The RD-180 Engine.
This engine, manufactured by NPO Energomash, fuels the first stage of the rocket. Its characteristic two chambers have been manufactured since the early 90s. While the US-based Aerojet Rocketdyne acquired the rights to produce this engine over twenty years ago, production has remained an entirely Russian affair to this current time – in clear violation of Department of Defense instructions that state:
“FSU-produced propulsion systems, components, or technology used in launch vehicles for national security missions must be converted to U.S. production within four years after contract award for Engineering and Manufacturing Development.”
– Department of Defense Instruction 3100.12 (Sept. 14, 2000)
Having a component that is Russian in manufacture on an important government program is a problem. Having a critical component that is NPO Energomash in manufacture on an important and classified government program is a very large problem.
NPO Energomash is effectively owned by the Russian Government (approximately 85% of shares). By sponsoring their continued production, the US government is directly supporting the increased strength of the Russian government and its defense firms, as well as indirectly supporting the places it sends those products. As ASP CEO, Stephen Cheney, stated “…it’s an undermining of our nation’s security for the sake of the status quo.”
The costs of the RD-180 are continuing to grow at an astounding rate (50% increase in 2012 alone), but little has been done to quell the problem. Furthermore, Russia’s Security Council has continued to toy with the possibility of banning RD-180 shipment to the United States. Although the Air Force has purchased Atlas V launch capabilities through 2019, there is the strong possibility that those capabilities might be shut off as soon as 2016. A program so important to critical US systems can’t be held hostage by the whims of the Russian government, especially when there’s a clear domestic solution.
A natural thought to have at this point is, “there must be some reason as to why we don’t produce these in the States.” You’d be right that there is a reason, but you’d be wrong to think it is a legitimate one. After all, in 1997, Karl Krapek, President of Pratt & Whitney stated:
“From machining the first metal chips to final acceptance testing and shipment to the customer, we will have the capability of producing 100% of the RD-180 engine domestically.”
– Karl J. Krapek, President, Pratt & Whitney (June 17, 1997)
Manufacturing RD-180 in the United States isn’t quite as simple as Mr. Krapek would have you believe. Although the licensing exists for RD-180 manufacture in the States, that doesn’t mean it’s just a matter of stopping production on one engine and switching to another. Entire plants, vast swaths of proper alloys, and the like would be required to ensure full production capabilities. However, alternatives do exist – ones that could secure a next generation of American space vehicles. Furthermore, history has shown us that investment into these vehicles comes with a host of ancillary technologies.
RD-180s are the weak link in the United States’ space program. Strengthening this weak chain isn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel, paying exorbitant costs, or scrapping preexisting programs, it’s simply a matter of taking advantage of the resources available domestically. It’s not just a good decision for NASA or the Air Force; it’s a good decision for our national security.