Notwithstanding Sanctions, ULA Standing By for RD-180 Deliveries through 2017

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SAN DIEGO — Economic sanctions the United States and Europe levied against the Russian government in July following the downing of a passenger jet by what U.S. authorities say was a Russian missile operated by Ukrainian separatists will not disrupt the flow of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, a company executive said here Aug. 5.

“At our level, it’s business as usual,” Mark Peller, director of the hardware value stream for Denver-based ULA, said here in a panel presentation at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Space 2014 conference.

Peller said ULA signed a contract earlier this year with RD-180 reseller RD Amross, a joint venture of the engine’s Moscow-area manufacturer, NPO Energomash, and United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Connecticut, that calls for delivery of 29 engines through 2017.

ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, expects to take delivery of the first two engines from that batch Aug. 20, Peller said. Three more would follow in October. Energomash would ship eight engines a year from 2015 through 2017, Peller said.

The RD-180 powers the main stage of ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which along with the company’s Delta 4 rocket launches the vast majority of U.S. national security spacecraft. The Lockheed Martin-designed Atlas 5 also launches all but the smallest science missions for NASA.

Washington imposed an initial round of economic sanctions against Russia after that country annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March. The move prompted Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, to threaten a ban on any RD-180 sales connected with U.S. military launches.

Rogozin, who has mocked the United States on Twitter, may have softened his position.

According to a July 21 story from Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency, Rogozin said, “[P]resently, the sale of engines [to the U.S.] benefits our engine-making enterprises in that they use the money for their own modernisation.”

Rogozin added, according to the story, “We need the most modern engines that produce more thrust. In order to design them, we need free money. This is why we are prepared to sell them.”

Peller said recent ULA visits to Russia might have had something to do with the deputy prime minister’s apparent change of heart.

“Our counterparts at NPO Energomash have talked to Mr. Rogozin directly and made him aware of the significance of our business arrangement,” Peller said.

The prospect of losing access to the RD-180 has spurred the U.S. government to consider a range of alternatives, including developing a domestic alternative or increasing production of the Boeing-designed Delta 4.

Aerojet Rocketdyne of Sacramento, California, says it has designed an alternative that could be flight ready in four years for an investment of less than $1 billion.

The White House, which as recently as 2011 wanted NASA to deal with producing a high-thrust, closed-loop kerosene engine like the RD-180, has asked Congress to provide some $40 million in 2014 for the Defense Department to begin work on such a rocket engine. The House version of the 2015 defense appropriations bill includes $220 million for the effort next year, while a Senate committee’s version recommends $25 million.