WASHINGTON — It’s difficult to know what to make of a report that the Russian government is considering banning exports of the RD-180 rocket engine to the United States for use on Atlas 5 rockets.

The report comes courtesy of the news website Russia Today (RT.com), which cited a story from the Izvestia newspaper that quoted an unnamed Russian space agency source saying the ban was under consideration in the government’s security council. Carrying a sensational – in other words, false – headline suggesting that such a ban could halt the U.S. space program, the story nonetheless comes amid amped up tensions between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s harboring of National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden and a brewing U.S. military strike on Syria, a longtime Russian client state.

Built by NPO Energomash of Moscow, the RD-180 is the main engine on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is used to launch national security and other U.S. government satellites. Derived from the giant Soviet-era RD-170 engine, the kerosene-fueled RD-180 was developed during the 1990s for Lockheed Martin’s commercial Atlas 3 rocket, which morphed into the Atlas 5 under the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. 

U.S. government officials allowed the use of the Russian-built engines in the EELV program on the condition that a domestic U.S. production line could be up and running within a couple of years if need be.  United Technologies Corp., which imported the RD-180 through a joint venture with Energomash called RD Amross, would have been assigned – through its formerly held Pratt & Whitney subsidiary – that manufacturing task, but many experts have long doubted that Russia would really give up the blueprints to a crown jewel of its space program. 

Whether or not an RD-180 export ban is actually under serious consideration is not clear outside senior Russian defense and space policy circles. It’s certainly plausible, but it could also be one person’s bureaucratic bluster, or Moscow’s way of registering its unhappiness over the Syria situation, or perhaps an attempt to set the stage for an RD-180 price increase. 

As one unnamed official points out in the Russia Today story, a ban would be a bad outcome for the politically connected Energomash organization, which draws a nice paycheck from the Atlas 5 program and has no other export outlet for the RD-180. The only other company to have declared its interest in the engine is Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., which has filed a lawsuit accusing United Launch Alliance of monopolizing the hardware.

For its part, United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, had this to say about the situation: 

“United Launch Alliance (ULA) is confident that our major subcontractor RD Amross … will honor its commitment to supply RD-180 engines for our Atlas 5 launch vehicle.  In the unlikely event that NPO Energomash is not allowed to export the engine, then ULA would continue to launch Atlas 5 vehicles for several years by drawing from the large inventory of RD-180 engines already stored in the U.S. ULA also produces the Delta 4 product that is built with the U.S.-produced RS-68 engine to assure uninterrupted access to space for all of our customers.”

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...