Atlas 5
United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on the launch pad. Credit: ULA

Putting aside all the difficult-to-follow “ins and outs” of how the future of space launch will be configured, who will launch on what rockets with which engines at what times and with what political support, there seems to be an issue that is front and center. It is not very exciting, but exciting enough that we should all pay attention — it does, after all, concern our national security. Congress has made a mess of national security in space, and the issue is getting quite clear. So, get out the mops.

Summing up, it seems that the U.S. Air Force may lose heavy-lift launch ability in a couple of short years. Why? Congress appears to have clipped their wings. At a time when one would think we were focused on sustained access to space — to watch China, Russia, ISIS and radical Islam — Congress is fighting with itself, and average Americans appear to be the victims. How could this be?

Last year, Congress restricted access to Russian RD-180 rocket engines in response to Russian aggression. The problem is that the Air Force’s only cost-effective way to launch key assets to outer orbits seems to be on Atlas 5 rockets, powered by these engines.

You might call this a stalemate. But who is playing who? We are playing ourselves, and if Congress does not reverse course, the American people will lose. This seems to be the state of play.

During a period when America has no heavy-lift rocket engines of our own, we cannot postpone protection of our national security from space. To punish Russia by robbing ourselves of important defense capabilities seems indefensible. You see the mess we have gotten ourselves into? Is there no other way to make our point, while preserving access to Russian RD-180 engines? It would seem that there is.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) recently included language in Congress’ year-end spending bill to allow the Air Force to once again purchase RD-180 engines from Russia. However, the lifting of this ban has already caused a stir within congressional circles and will continue to be a focal point in discussions of this omnibus bill’s passage.

Put differently, do you recall the Soviet story where one farmer kills the other’s cow because the first farmer does not have one of his own? Both farmers lose, since no one has milk after that. In this case, limiting American access to the critical RD-180 engines, preventing the Air Force from having a reliable heavy-lift launch source, would surely hurt us as much or more than the Russians. They might lose a little foreign exchange; we would lose national security assets in space. The trade hardly seems fair or sensible.

Ironically, the Russians — as has long been the case — would likely just sell to someone else. In other words, they would keep their cow alive, while ours died — from our own actions. If we seek to rob them of their cow (i.e. foreign exchange) in this strange way, we lose twice. They carry on and we have less reliable and ready access to space on their engines.

So, how do we correct this error, and clean up this mess? How do we make sure no one has to “cry over spilled milk” — including average Americans?

Congress should take a deep breath and listen to what the Air Force is saying. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James recently said: “We are trying to work this through with Congress to essentially give us a little bit more leeway … [to] allow us to use a few more [RD-180] engines for a few more years until we can get this developmental program completed.” More bluntly, she noted that an American engine might be developed in a decade, but that was not certain. What was certain was that it cannot be developed on “the deadline requested by Congress,” after the lights start to go out.

So, let us get out the mops. Can Congress not use Senator Shelby’s language to clean up this mess? Can they not assure the launch of national security assets to important orbits for the indefinite future? Is this really so hard? Now that the issue has been displayed clearly by Shelby and others, can they not admit their prior fault and end this bickering? If average Americans can understand the stakes, could Congress please stop delaying and assure RD-180 engines until as long as it takes to get an American engine? From the point of view of farmers and watchmakers, this is not rocket science.

The way to clean this up is to accept undefined purchases (using the reliable engines we can use now) over an unlimited time (since national security never ends), while funding an American-made rocket engine or two over the next decade. Senator Shelby has seen the problem clearly and has made steps toward the remedy — can Congress follow his lead? Then, in 10 years, we can check things again and see if anyone’s cows need to die.

Kent D. Johnson, a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, retired U.S. Air Force colonel and former political-military adviser on the staff of the secretary of the Air Force (international affairs), is an adjunct at North Central Texas College specializing in defense studies.