The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2016 NDAA, which exempted a total of nine RD-180 engines, prevailed in the compromise bill hashed out by House and Senate conferees. Credit: ULA

COLORADO SPRINGS — The new chief executive of the U.S.-Russian joint venture that provides RD-180 engines to United Launch Alliance said April 6 he hopes to win an order for additional engines.

During a panel on international cooperation at the 33rd Space Symposium, Michael Baker, CEO of RD Amross, said he expected ULA to make a decision in the near future on buying additional engines as a hedge against any delays in the development of the company’s Vulcan rocket.

“We would like to make more engines and sell them in the U.S.,” said Baker, a former astronaut who became CEO in January after retiring from NASA.

Use of the RD-180 became a political hot potato in 2014, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea led to calls by U.S. lawmakers to end reliance on the engine. That debate, which at one point included legislation that sharply reduced the number of RD-180 engines available to ULA for national security missions, was resolved last year with the passage of the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization act that gives ULA access to as many as 18 engines for national security missions through 2022.

By 2022, ULA hopes to have the Vulcan vehicle certified by the U.S. Air Force for such launches, using either a Blue Origin BE-4 engine or an Aerojet Rocketdyne AR1 engine in place of the RD-180. Baker, though, suggested that additional RD-180 engines could provide a cushion should certification of Vulcan be delayed.

“Those developments can have lots of issues, so they’re really struggling to decide whether they need some more engines or not,” he said of ULA. “I think the decision is going to be made soon to probably buy some more engines.”

ULA has not publicly stated any interest in purchasing more RD-180 engines. Use of additional engines would require new language in a future authorization bill, although ULA would be free to use the engines for commercial customers as well as for civil government agencies like NASA.

Baker said ULA would need to make a decision soon, given the two-year lead time for producing new engines. The last RD-180 engines under the current agreement are due to be delivered to ULA in 2019. An additional order, he said, would likely push out that final delivery date to 2020 or 2021, and support launches well into 2024.

Even with an additional engine order, the long-term future of RD Amross is not clear. Russia’s NPO Energomash, which builds the RD-180, and United Technologies Corp. are the partners in the joint venture, established in the late 1990s to both import the RD-180 for the Atlas 5 and, ultimately, produce it in the United States. However, domestic production of the RD-180 was never funded.

The Atlas 5 is the only vehicle that currently uses the RD-180. NPO Energomash does provide the RD-181 engine to Orbital ATK for use on its Antares rocket, but those sales are done directly between the companies and not through RD Amross.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...