Sen. John McCain
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a Dec. 8 letter he would consider an "unrestricted prohibition" on a Russian rocket engine. Credit: U.S. Army Chief of Staff

WASHINGTON – Senators took to their chamber’s floor June 9 to debate when United Launch Alliance should stop using Russian RD-180 rocket engines to launch national security satellites.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) made the case for allowing United Launch Alliance to continue to purchase RD-180 engines from Russia for its Atlas 5 rocket through 2022, arguing that an earlier cutoff would jeopardize national security. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defended ending use of the RD-180 engine, criticizing ULA on the Senate floor and calling the issue “one of the most unsavory issues that I’ve been involved with” while in the Senate.

Here are highlights from the debate:

“The fact is if we want to end our reliance on Russian engines without jeopardizing the reliability and affordability that are essential to a successful launch program, it’s going to take another few years. I’m not satisfied with that. I want to see it happen faster. In the meantime though, we have to take seriously the warnings of our military and intelligence community that eliminating access to the RD-180 engine pre-maturely, before a replacement is ready to fly, would seriously undermine our national security interests.”Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. [Four minutes.]

“This is a classic example of the influence of special interests over the nation’s priorities but more importantly, [ULA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin] are so greedy that they were willing to put millions of dollars into the pockets of these individuals, two of whom have been sanctioned by the United States of America and one of them who has been sanctioned by the EU.”McCain (R-Ariz.), SASC chairman. [24 minutes]

“Yes, let’s make sure we transition. Yes, let’s make sure that we change the status quo, but let’s do it in a way that’s smart, good policy and protects the interests of the American people.”Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). [Nine minutes.]

Gardner goes on to make the case that the United States spends more money importing “fish crustaceans and aquatic vertebrates” than it does on Russian rocket engines. [Six minutes]

“In one case, United Launch Alliance. In another case, SpaceX. For the good of the country, we’ve got to have both until we can develop and test and fly successfully the replacement engine.”Nelson. [12 minutes]

“I repeat, this is what an executive of ULA said: ‘The government was not happy with us for not bidding that contract because they had felt that they had bent over backwards to lean the field in our advantage.’”McCain. [Four minutes]

Read more on the ULA executive’s gaffe in SpaceNews Magazine: Tobey’s Teachable Moment.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.