McCain’s RD-180 Stance Unaltered by SpaceX Failure

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WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the June 28 failure of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket should not be used as “leverage” to buy more of the Russian rocket engines that power United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

“I am confident that this minor setback will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions,” McCain said in a statement. “There will be those that will seek to leverage this incident to argue for deepening America’s dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine.”

The failure came with SpaceX gearing up to compete for national security business using its newly certified Falcon 9 rocket. ULA, whose primary and most competitive rocket is the Atlas 5, has long had that market to itself.

Congress directed the U.S. Air Force to stop using the RD-180 following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine last year. ULA, which already has a large batch of RD-180s on order, says it needs 14 more engines to stay competitive in the military market until its planned Vulcan rocket, to be powered by a U.S.-made engine, is ready around 2020. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 permits ULA to procure those engines for Air Force launches, but the Senate version allows only nine.

ULA and the Air Force say the Senate version of the bill would eventually create a new national security launch monopoly in SpaceX. In the wake of the Falcon 9 failure, the Air Force cited the need to maintain assured access to space, a term that has come to mean having two different vehicles available in case one is grounded.

“The Department of Defense will continue to have two launch providers until at least 2018, if not later,” McCain said in the statement. “If that competitive environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the Congress could revisit this issue in order to mitigate any national security impacts.

“With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base.”