House-Senate Conference Measure To End Pentagon Use of RD-180

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Updated at 3:45 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 4 passed the final version of a defense authorization bill that prohibits the future use of a Russian-built rocket engine that today is routinely used to launch U.S. national security satellites.

The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015, recently finalized by House and Senate negotiators, also requires the Defense Department to replace the Russian engine, dubbed RD-180, with an American-made propulsion system by 2019.

The Senate is expected to pass the $577.1 billion bill early the week of Dec. 8, after which it will be sent to the White House to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

The RD-180 is the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of two vehicles the company uses to launch most U.S. government satellites and virtually all national security missions.

The engine is built by NPO Energomash of Russia and sold to ULA by RD-Amross, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies Corp. That arrangement has come under fire from Capitol Hill and elsewhere due to the deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations that accelerated this year over the crisis in Ukraine.

The Air Force last year awarded ULA an $11 billion sole-source contract for Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets that runs through 2019. ULA executives have said the current contract includes 29 engines.

The RD-180s ordered as part of this contract are exempt from the pending legislation.

The conference measure also narrows the scope of language, inserted into the Senate version of the bill by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that barred the Pentagon from signing new contracts or renewing existing contracts with launch companies that rely on Russian suppliers.

The Defense Department had asked lawmakers to strike that provision from the bill during conference due to concern that it could immediately hamper its ability to launch satellites. ULA feared the bill would also ground its Delta 4 rocket, but the final agreement makes clear that is not the case.

The compromise legislation also allows for a waiver process for national security missions “if space launch services cannot be obtained at a fair and reasonable price without the use of the Russian RD-180 engines,” a summary of the compromise measure said.

In addition to the Delta 4, which is powered by U.S.-made engines but is significantly more expensive than the Atlas 5, the Air Force is close to certifying SpaceX’s all-U.S. Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security missions. SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is pushing to break ULA’s monopoly in the national security market and is challenging ULA’s sole-source contract in federal court.

The Air Force is exploring various options for reducing its dependence on Russian engine technology, while ULA has joined forces with the Blue Origin rocket venture, led by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, to develop an alternative to the RD-180 that they say will be ready by 2019.

Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and chief executive, said Dec. 2 the pending legislation likely will require the company to accelerate its work with Blue Origin.

“We’re allowed to continue our current purchase of RD-180s that we already have on order,” he said of the compromise. “That’s going to carry us quite some distance. We think we’ll probably be able to make that connect and have our replacement engine when those are eventually exhausted.”

The bill allows for $220 million to be spent on the new engine program, but specifies that the money not be used to develop a new launch vehicle. The engine would be available to purchase for any American space company.

The finalized authorization bill also boosts the number of launches the Air Force would put up for competition, according to the summary. Currently, the Air Force is planning on putting seven, and possibly eight, missions up for bid from fiscal years 2015 through 2017 as part of an initiative to reduce its satellite launching costs.

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The legislation requires the Air Force to add a competitive mission in 2015 — this would be in addition to a National Reconnaissance Office mission already on the books — and one more between then and 2017, according to the bill.

Other military space-related provisions of the bill include:

  • Directing the Defense Department to study giving the commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, the service’s space acquisition arm, acquisition authority for all wideband satellite communications no later than 2017. Currently the center buys satellites, but the Defense Information Systems Agency buys commercial bandwidth, an arrangement industry officials say is inefficient and lacks strategic and budgetary coherence.
  • Authorizing $20 million for the competitive launch of a rapid-response military satellite known as Operationally Responsive Space-5. That mission also would act as a pathfinder for technologies to be used in a follow-on to the Space Based Space Surveillance system, currently used to keep tabs on threats to satellites in geosynchronous orbits. The Air Force has described a launch capability for ORS-5 that fits in the performance envelope of several small U.S. rockets including Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Pegasus XL and Minotaur 1 — the latter is based in part on excess U.S. ICBM assets — and the Lockheed Martin-ATK Athena 1C.
  • Limiting the Air Force’s ability to store the last of the Air Force’s legacy weather satellites, known as Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Flight 20. Defense Department leaders have been studying whether to launch the satellite, but the estimated cost of storing the satellite until its proposed 2020 launch date exceeds $420 million. Under the new bill, the Air Force must show how storage is the most cost-effective route for the satellite. In addition, the bill fences off half of the $39 million the Air Force requested for its next-generation weather satellite until the Defense Department shows how the program would meet certain military requirements. Pentagon officials worry that the provision will slow development of the satellite, which is expected to launch in 2021 or 2022.
  • Restricting how the Air Force can spend Space Modernization Initiative funding within the accounts for its missile warning and secure communications satellite programs pending completion of studies for alternatives to the current programs of record.

Irene Klotz contributed to this story.