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Senate Schism on Russian Rocket Engines Continues - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2016
Updated: 26-May-2016 01:58 PM

The Senate Appropriations Committee's Defense Subcommittee approved its version of the FY2017 defense appropriations bill today.  Few details have been released, but in at least one area -- Russian RD-180 rocket engines -- the schism between Senate appropriators and authorizers seems destined to continue.  The full appropriations committee will mark up the bill on Thursday. [UPDATE:  The committee approved the bill on May 26.]

Senate appropriators and authorizers clashed last year over the number of Russian RD-180 rocket engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) may obtain for its Atlas V rockets for launching national security satellites.  The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), chaired by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), limited the number to an additional nine.  The Senate Appropriations Committee essentially lifted that limit in the FY2016 appropriations act at the urging of two of its most senior members -- Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL).  ULA builds its rockets in Alabama.  It is a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  Boeing is headquartered in Chicago, IL.

McCain vehemently opposes the appropriations action and SASC's FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) -- which is scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor this week -- would repeal that section of the law.  (McCain and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, introduced stand-alone bills in January to repeal that provision, but there has been no action on them.)

The ongoing argument over the number of engines has overshadowed related issues.  One is highlighted in the Senate Appropriations Committee's brief summary of the bill approved at subcommittee level today.

"Space Launch/RD-180 Engines – The Committee recommendation includes a general provision, as requested by the Administration, which requires all competitive launch procurements to be available to all certified launch providers regardless of the country of origin of the launch vehicle rocket engine."

That appears to push back on language in McCain's NDAA that prohibits the Secretary of Defense from certifying any entity to bid for the award or renewal of a contract for space launch services if that entity would use a rocket engine designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.  If enacted, that would preclude ULA from bidding for national security launches using the Atlas V since its engines are built in Russia.  ULA operates two launch vehicles -- the Atlas V and Delta IV.  SpaceX is the only other certified provider for national security launches and ULA argues that its Delta IV is not cost competitive with SpaceX, so Atlas V is its only option in such competitions.  SASC's NDAA addresses that issue by allowing half of the money allocated for developing a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 to be used to offset increased launch costs (presumably for using the pricey Delta IV).

The appropriations subcommittee also approved $396.6 million, $100 million above the request, to develop a U.S. alternative to the RD-180.  The markup was short and sweet. It lasted only about 30 minutes and the topic of rocket engines did not arise.  Full committee markup on Thursday begins at 10:30 am ET. [UPDATE:  The committee approved the bill on May 26.]

(Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)


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