ULA Won’t Need Russia to Finish Atlas V National Security Space Launches

CAPE CANAVERAL SPACE FORCE STATION, Fla.— A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, powered by a Russian-made RD-180 rocket motor, blasted off on a crisp 68 degree Florida day into clear blue skies March 1, carrying the GOES-T National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite into orbit. Seven years after Congress ordered ULA to find another source for its rocket motors, this launch comes at the lowest point in U.S.-Russian relations in decades.

And though ULA will soon be cut off from further supplies due to sanctions imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine last month, ULA and Space Force officials say they don’t expect any National Security Space Launches to be affected.

Later this year, ULA is set to transition to the new Vulcan Centaur rocket, powered by a pair of Blue Origin BE-4 engines. But in the meantime, ULA will continue launching payloads, including National Security Space Launches (NSSL), with the Russian-made RD-180 first-stage engine.

U.S. Space Force Space Launch Delta 45 commander Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Purdy Jr. said the current crisis and heightened tensions with Russia show how maintaining and expanding America’s space architecture can be threatened by reliance on adversarial actors such as Russia.

“It’s very interesting about having to depend on a foreign supplier,” he told Air Force Magazine during a visit to Patrick Space Force Base, Fla.

“Launch is a big issue,” he said. “You see that right now with the Ukraine activity. The Russians are holding the OneWeb satellites, and they’re not going to launch it.”

ULA plans for Vulcan Centaurs to begin launching sometime in 2022 from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

“As we manage the transition to the Vulcan launch system, all necessary RD-180 engines to execute the Atlas V flyout are safely stored in our factory in Decatur, Alabama,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told Air Force Magazine in a written statement.

“We have agreements for technical support and spares, but if that support is not available, we will still be able to safely and successfully fly out our Atlas program,” she added.

A U.S. Space Force spokesperson told Air Force Magazine that Russia’s pullback from space cooperation will not affect NSSL.

“The Space Force does not expect Russian noncooperation in space to affect NSSL launches,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“The Space Force has four remaining Atlas V launch services,” the spokesperson noted. “All RD-180 engines needed for Space Force missions are in ULA’s possession. Additionally, the Space Force is fully supporting ULA’s development of the Vulcan Launch System, which does not use Russian engines, for future launches.”

“There’s just a few left,” Purdy assured of the launches remaining under his purview.

“This has all been laid in and planned,” he added. “The Vulcan program exists for the purpose of getting off the RD-180 engine, combining the best of the Delta IV and the Atlas V into a new, partially reusable rocket that ULA will use to take us forward.”

Purdy echoed Secretary Frank Kendall’s past statements, saying, “We’re not concerned from that front. We built in a path ages ago, and that’s executing per plan.”