Loss of Russian-Made Rocket Engine Threatens Space Assurance

Russia’s threat of refusing to provide its powerful RD-180 rocket engine could endanger the assured access to space that is critical to America’s national security and economy, cautioned high-level defense and NASA officials, as well as a bipartisan coalition of senators on July 16. But the officials and lawmakers, speaking during a joint hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, differed on the urgency of developing a domestic alternative to the Russian heavy-lift engine. Air Force Space Command boss Gen. William Shelton said assured access to space “at the times and places of our choosing” was critical to US national security. The loss of the availability of the RD-180 “would have significant impact on our ability to reliably lunch the current manifest of national security payloads on a schedule of our choosing,” Shelton said. Most of the senators at the joint hearing argued for an aggressive program to develop a US alternative to remove the threat, but the defense and NASA officials said Russia has not acted on the RD-180 threat and the current supply would last more than two years. On the other hand, it could take up to eight years to produce an alternative engine. (See also Engine Wars and Engine Vulnerabilities.)