Shortly before a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy booster lifted off from Vandenberg AFB yesterday, spacepolicyonline relayed a report from the Russian newspaper Izvestia suggesting that Vladimir Putin’s government is considering terminating the agreement which allows the United States to import the RD-180 main engine which powers the ULA Atlas V booster.
Although critics were quick to point out that such a move would likely harm Russia as much or more than it did the United States, and therefore is not likely to happen, several points are worth consideration.
First, terminating export of the RD-180 could likely pose a short term problem for engine manufacturer Energomash. However, given the fact that ULA does not disclose how many engines it actually has in inventory, it is also possible that the current production rate is not as high one might otherwise think. And, while ULA stands to gain a modest number of additional launches as a potential launch provider in NASA’s Commercial Crew contest, whether it is written in English or Cyrillic, everyone can read the writing on the wall. After qualifying the Falcon 9 V1.1, SpaceX is sooner or later going to begin earning DOD launches which might otherwise have gone to the Atlas V and the RD-180.
On the other side of the spectrum, Energomash also builds the RD-171 engine which powers the Zenit 3-SL booster, operated by Sea Launch, which is now 95% owned by RSC Energia. Energia in turn, is in turn 38% owned by the Russian Government, which is reportedly seeking to increase its holding to a controlling authority. Following the chain, if the Russian government is committed to supporting the admittedly troubled booster, it is not a far stretch to envision the net result being increased orders for the 4 chambered engine, providing a bit of a soft landing from terminating the RD-180 arrangement. More significantly, and only a little further out, after an excruciatingly slow development program, Russia is now accelerating its commitment to the Angara family of boosters, comprised of Universal Rocket Modules, each of which is powered by the single chambered RD-191 engine from the same family, and also built by Energomash. With an initial launch of the Angara 1.2 rocket awaiting completion of its pad at Plesetsk, and scheduled for a mid-2014 debut, Russia, which has classified the project as “high priority” is only a year away from launching its own new era in space access, one which is entirely dependent on production from the same company which builds the RD-180.
The bottom line is that terminating the RD-180 arrangement might not be nearly as problematic for Russia as might be otherwise be considered, a calculus which must take in to account the Russian Defense perspective in growing increasingly frustrated in seeing one of the shining jewels of Russian technological and industrial achievement, high pressure staged combustion rocket engines, routinely used to launch spy satellites and other defense assets which, which by any rational measure would be a major source of concern if the roles were reversed. Add in a dollop of humiliation after seeing those same engines launch spectacularly successful missions to Mars, even as its own have failed miserably, the question could just as easily become not why cancel it, but why hasn’t it been canceled already.
The real question of course, is why the U.S. has willingly accepted such a gaping hole in its defense rationale in relying on a critical path technology from a clear potential adversary for so long. After all, its a pretty good bet that the NRO satellite, launched yesterday isn’t just going to be taking “selfies” when it orbits over Russia