According to DefenseNews, the Pentagon late last week refused to waive a law banning the use of Russian rocket engines for military satellite launches, rejecting a plea from United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that provides spacecraft launch services to the U.S. government, has threatened to skip an upcoming Air Force competition for satellite launches unless it gets some relief from the ban. ULA relies on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine to power its Atlas V rocket, although it also builds a Delta IV rocket powered by U.S. company Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RS-68 engine.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the other potential competitor for the Air Force’s GPS III Launch Services solicitation, part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. SpaceX has invested heavily over the past few years to develop its own Merlin engine to power its Falcon 9 rocket. Proposals for GPS III Launch Services are due November 16.
In response to recent Russian aggression, particularly Moscow’s annexation of Crimea last year, lawmakers in the fiscal 2015 defense budget banned the use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines for military satellite launches after 2019.
The Pentagon remains committed to maintaining two sources of launch services to ensure access to space, according to Lieutenant Commander Courtney Hillson, spokeswoman for the deputy secretary of defense. Department of Defense (DoD) will continue to evaluate the need for a waiver and consider a range of options, including possible sole-source contracts, to keep both companies in business, she continued.
«We are not planning at this time to issue a waiver lifting the prohibition against award of an EELV space launch services contract to a contractor intending to use a Russian manufactured engine, although we will continue to evaluate the need for such waiver, if deemed necessary», Hillson said in a statement emailed to Defense News on October 13.
«We will continue to work with the Administration and Congress to maintain assured access to space, to achieve the mutual goal of a healthy and competitive industrial base, and to ensure a rapid transition away from the Russian RD-180 engine».