WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department would be required to examine the feasibility of swapping the Russian-made engine that powers the first stage of one of its workhorse rockets for a U.S. alternative under recently introduced legislation in the Senate.
The National Security Rocket Engine Study Act of 2013, introduced Nov. 12 by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), calls for an estimate of the costs of manufacturing an alternative to the Russian-made RD-180 engine in the United States. It also asks for an estimate of the savings that a U.S. engine would provide during the life of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which is used today to launch virtually all U.S. national security satellites.
The RD-180 is built by RSC Energomash in the Moscow region and sold to U.S. rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA) by RD-Amross, a joint venture between the Russian manufacturer and United Technologies Corp. The engine, which powers the first stage of ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, has been a source of controversy in recent months, the latest episode stemming from reports that the Russian government was mulling a ban on its export to the United States.
“I question why that industry cannot produce a cost-effective system that will avoid relying on a nation that continues to pose a threat to our national security,” Toomey said in a press release Nov. 12.
U.S. lawmakers have long complained about the EELV program’s costs, which have doubled during the last decade. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the government is expected to spend some $44 billion on satellite launches and related services during the next five years.
Bill Parsons, president and chief executive officer of RD-Amross, told SpaceNews in October that while the company likes the idea of building the RD-180 in the United States, doing so could increase its cost by as much as 50 percent. RD-Amross has the designs for the engine so in theory it could set up a domestic production line.
“We always like to talk about that. Just like everything else, though, it requires an investment. It’s a fairly sizable investment,” Parsons said. “It’s a project we’d all like to be a part of. But they [Energomash] meet their contracts, they deliver on time and the price is a good price. You build that same engine in the U.S. and the price of that engine goes up.”
Toomey’s standalone bill also asks for “a description of policy benefits and policy concerns related to where the rocket engine is manufactured.” A report from the Defense Department would be due to congressional defense committees six months after the bill was enacted.
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 EELV program. Lockheed Martin merged its rocket business with Boeing’s to create ULA.
ULA currently has 2.5 years worth of Atlas 5 engine inventory on hand at its factory in Decatur, Ala., and is expected to receive five engines next year and six engines in 2015.
Toomey’s bill has been referred to the Senate Armed Services committee for consideration.
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