For more than a decade, the United States military has depended on buying Russian-made rocket engines to launch its most crucial satellites. On Friday, Congress said no more.
Despite lobbying from a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., the Senate voted 89-11 to approve a bill Friday that would ban the Pentagon from awarding future rocket launch contracts to firms using Russian engines.
The ban is a blow to the Boeing-Lockheed venture called United Launch Alliance, which has relied on using the Russian engines under an exclusive and expensive deal it has had with the Air Force since 2006.
It is a victory, however, for local aerospace upstart SpaceX, which wants some of the Air Force’s satellite launching business. SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., designs and manufactures its own rocket engines at its factory in Hawthorne near Los Angeles International Airport.
Lockheed, and later the joint venture it formed with Boeing, has been using the Russian rocket engines for military and commercial launches since 2000. Some American aerospace engineers contend the powerful engines, which burn liquid oxygen and kerosene, are the world’s best.
The ban on Russian rocket engines is part of a massive bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, that authorizes $580 billion in Pentagon spending over the next year. Among its scores of provisions are cuts to military health benefits, continued funding of the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog aircraft — marked for retirement — and the authorization of a stepped-up campaign against Islamic State militants.
The measure has already passed the House and is now headed for the expected signature of President Obama.
The defense bill was one of the few in which congressional members of both parties came together.
And they made it clear in the bill’s language that they wanted the Air Force to stop relying on space technology built by Russia — a country that became a renewed military threat with its annexation of Crimea and its support of separatists in the Ukraine.
The bill notes that it is “the sense of Congress” that American national security space systems “are facing a serious growing foreign threat” from both Russia and China.
And it calls on the secretary of defense to develop “a next-generation” rocket engine by 2019 that would be “made in the United States.”
United Launch Alliance succeeded at weakening the bill so that it is allowed to use the Russian engines already in its inventory, which it says is enough for military launches over the next two years.
One of those Russian engines will power the Atlas V rocket that was set to blast a military satellite into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County this weekend.
The bill also allows the joint venture to use the Russian engines — known as the RD-180 — it previously ordered from its Russian supplier. The company said Friday that it had 29 engines on order, including five that have already been delivered.
“Over the last 15 years, the RD-180 engine has been a remarkable success and a reliable workhorse for the Atlas launch vehicle,” said Jessica Rye, a United Launch Alliance spokeswoman.
Rye added that “any effort to cut off the RD-180 before a new, reliable engine is available would result in billions of increased costs to the U.S. taxpayer and will leave the nation with a huge gap in national security capabilities.”
United Launch Alliance announced in September that it had begun working with Blue Origin, a start-up space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, to develop a new rocket engine for the Atlas V.
The RD-180 is built by NPO Energomash, a company near Moscow that is largely owned by the Russian government. The engine is sold to the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture by RD-Amross, a partnership between Energomash and Connecticut-based United Technologies Corp.
Aerospace giant General Dynamics sought the engines from the Russians in the early 1990s, according to a paper by a United Launch Alliance employee, because they provided “a dramatic performance increase over available U.S. rocket technology.”
The RD-180 is not the same type of Russian engine that powered the unmanned rocket bound for the International Space Station that exploded seconds after it was launched Oct. 28. That rocket, owned by Orbital Sciences, was powered by a Russian engine known as the NK-33, which was built decades ago.
Costs of launching military satellites has skyrocketed under contracts the Air Force has given to United Launch Alliance.
The average cost for each launch using rockets from Boeing and Lockheed has soared to $420 million, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX, has said his company can perform a satellite launch for less than $100 million.
SpaceX must first be certified by the Air Force as a reliable provider of launch services. The Air Force said last month that it hopes to decide on whether to certify SpaceX by year’s end.