WASHINGTON – A massive U.S. government spending bill, released by lawmakers Dec. 16, effectively lifts a ban on the Russian rocket engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket at least until Oct. 1, re-energizing competition for Defense Department launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX.
The new language, included in the omnibus spending bill for 2016, says “that notwithstanding any other provision of law” the Air Force could award a launch contract to any certified company “regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle, in order to ensure robust competition and continued assured access to space.”
The Russian-built RD-180 engine powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is used to launch a majority of national security satellites. The Atlas 5 is considered the only competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for nine upcoming military launches.
The bill also provided no funding for the Air Force’s legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, a line of weather satellites dating back to the 1960s. The last of those satellites, DMSP-F20, had been tentatively slated to launch around 2018, but the bill denied the Air Force’s $120 million request launch that satellite.
Congress banned future use of Russian engines for U.S. national security launches in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 as a response to Russia’s 2014 incursion into neighboring Ukraine. Lawmakers, the Air Force and ULA have been debating the specific terms of the ban ever since.
The language in the 2016 spending bill comes about one month after Denver-based ULA said it declined to bid for the right to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018, effectively ceding the contract to SpaceX. ULA cited multiple reasons for not bidding, the engine ban among them.
The recently passed National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 provided limited relief from the ban, giving ULA access to four more engines for upcoming Air Force competitions. This came after the company said it had assigned five engines that previously were deemed exempt from the ban to nonmilitary missions.
The move to lift the ban entirely in the must-pass omnibus spending bill was telegraphed in November by the office of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. ULA builds the Atlas 5 in Decatur, Alabama.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent ULA critic, urged his Appropriations Committee colleagues to adhere to the 2016 NDAA, but to no avail.
Shelby described the ban as “reckless” and said the new language would address Pentagon concerns about a potential gap in assured access to space.
“The language included in the omnibus would reverse the reckless restriction put on the use of the RD-180, which undermines our national security,” Shelby said in a Dec. 16 email to SpaceNews. “While I strongly believe that we should not be dependent upon any foreign power for access to space, it is far too risky to ban the RD-180 until we have a domestically-produced engine that has the same capabilities.”
In a blistering speech on the Senate floor, McCain said the Senate Armed Services Committee would consider “a complete and indefinite restriction on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s rocket engines” as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017.
The 2016 spending bill, which expires Sept. 30, 2016, also provides $227 million to accelerate development of an American replacement for the RD-180. That’s about $143 million more than the White House’s budget request, according to a summary of Defense Department spending in the bill.
The engine development effort has a $220 million budget for 2015, but the Air Force requested only $84 million for 2016.
Congress mandated last year that the Defense Department develop a domestic engine that would be ready to fly by 2019.