Mars 2020 launch
The Atlas 5 carrying Mars 2020 lifts off from Cape Canaveral July 30. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — The Russian rocket engines that United Launch Alliance needs to complete the remaining launches of the Atlas 5 are stored in the United States. The company said the operation of the vehicle will not be affected by the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the Biden administration in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“As we manage the transition to the Vulcan launch system, all necessary RD-180 engines to execute the Atlas 5 fly-out are safely stored in our factory in Decatur, Alabama,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye said in a statement. 

The Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine powers the first stage of the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. Following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, Congress directed the Pentagon to stop using launch vehicles powered by Russian engines and only allowed DoD to award contracts for Atlas 5 launches through 2022.

ULA is transitioning to Vulcan Centaur — a new launch vehicle that will use the Blue Origin BE-4 engine made in the United States — but has contracts to launch about 25 more missions for government and commercial customers on the Atlas 5 between now and 2025. 

It’s still unclear if the latest sanctions announced by the Biden administration will restrict ULA from buying spare parts or obtaining technical support services from the RD-180 manufacturer NPO Energomash. “We have agreements for technical support and spares, but if that support is not available, we will still be able to safely and successfully fly out our Atlas program,” said Rye. 

ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno said the company has been flying these engines for many years and is not dependent on Energomash for technical expertise. “I have personal experience in flying other people’s rockets without their support, which informs my confidence,” Bruno tweeted Feb. 25. “We like to have a retainer in order to ask questions or do repairs if that were to come up. But we have a lot of experience and expertise here, so we can do without if necessary.”

The RD-180 was put on Atlas “because the U.S. government asked us to,” Bruno noted. “They wanted to prevent Russian rocket scientists from going to North Korea and Iran after the Cold War. After Crimea in 2014, the U.S. government decided this was no longer a good idea. I came to ULA that summer and started Vulcan.”

ULA on Feb. 15 announced an agreement with Milling Precision in Wichita, Kansas, to supply components for the Atlas 5 rocket. 

“We will continue to cultivate new supplier relationships to ensure we safely and successfully fly out the program,” Rye said. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...