Senators vow to reassert America's rocket power

Lawmakers and top military officials on Wednesday expressed fears that friction with Russia could someday leave the United States without the power to launch rockets into space.

Reliance on a single Russian engine to launch many critical military satellites could come back to haunt the U.S., officials said, if tensions between the two nations continue to rise.

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“If you consider space a national security priority, then you absolutely have to consider assured access to space a national security priority,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Air Force’s space command, testified in a joint Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

“Given that we have a vulnerability here, it’s time to close that hole,” he said.

For more than a decade, the U.S. has relied on RD-180 engines to power Atlas V rockets, which are responsible for launching about two-thirds of the satellites that provide communications, surveillance and other services for the Pentagon.

But the engine is made by contractors in Russia and has become a critical bargaining chip for Moscow, as the United States prepares to impose new economic sections against the country for its actions in Ukraine.

As the conflict escalated earlier this year, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to block sales to the U.S. military. At the time, he also called into question broader cooperation with Russia, on which the U.S. has relied to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

"After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline," said Rogozin, who has been specifically targeted by U.S. sanctions, along with other top Kremlin officials and aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

So far, those threats seem to be largely bluster. But lawmakers say the tough talk exposed a critical weakness for the U.S., and they are pushing to find a domestic replacement for the engine before it’s too late.

“You’ll notice there wasn’t a peep out of [Russian space agency] Roscosmos,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) chairman of the Commerce subcommittee on Science and Space, said during Wednesday’s hearing. “They obviously want to continue that. But nevertheless, it brings it to a head.”

“It puts us in a vulnerable position that I wish we didn’t have to be in, but it’s time for us to rise to the occasion,” added Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Armed Services subcommittee that oversees space missions. 

If Putin suddenly decided to change course and halt RD-180 exports to the U.S. tomorrow, American missions would be set back by as much as four years, Shelton said.

The military currently has 15 of the engines held in reserve, but there are dozens of missions already scheduled. If no new engines came in, officials would have to decide how to ration those existing engines while determining whether the Pentagon could rely on other rockets.

“It is dire,” Shelton told lawmakers. “If that should happen, there is no question that, inside this manifest that we’re considering right now, there would be serious national security implications.”

Both chambers of Congress have turned attention to the issue.

The House’s defense spending bill called for $220 million to begin building an RD-180 replacement in the U.S. The Senate Armed Services Committee has recommended $100 million for the purpose.

“The United States must now respond decisively and provide our own domestic capacity to launch our crew and cargo into space,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said. “We simply cannot rely on the vicissitudes of foreign suppliers in a foreign nation for our national security.”

The full costs of replacing the engine could be much higher than Congress is willing to commit to right now.

It is, quite literally, rocket science to fit a new engine into existing rockets. Aside from building the engine itself, engineers will also need to make sure every other component works with the new machinery, kind of like switching out a car’s hybrid engine with a V8.

That could take five to eight years and cost up to $2 billion, predicted the Pentagon’s acquisition and technology chief, Alan Estevez.

One possible reason for a potential strain on the engine's supply is the Air Force’s limitations on purchases from companies aside from United Launch Alliance, a joint Lockheed Martin-Boeing venture for military space missions.

SpaceX, the space company led by billionaire Elon Musk, has sued the Air Force over its bidding process, which it says unfairly prevents new companies from getting in the game.

The company is not currently certified to handle 7 out of 10 mission configurations the Pentagon needs, however, and will not attain new certifications for months.

“We are aggressively pursuing to get SpaceX certified to launch our satellites,” Estevez, the acquisitions chief, said. “We look forward to getting them to be able to launch the ones ... that they are capable of launching.