Space Law News
The United States and its major European allies announced on Monday they are finalizing more sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17. The United States also reportedly formally accused Russia of violating a treaty prohibiting development of new medium range cruise missiles. The extent to which these developments might impact U.S.–Russian space relationships is unclear.
Sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over the past several months following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula have largely skirted civil space cooperation. The United States relies on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian rocket engines are used to power two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas 5 with its Russian RD-180 engines, and Antares and its Russian AJ-26 (NK-33) engines.
Although NASA, along with other government agencies, was directed to limit cooperation with Russia, the ISS was specifically exempted and other NASA programs were given waivers. Three Russian cosmonauts, two American astronauts and one German astronaut are currently living together aboard the ISS, which is jointly operated by the United States and Russia.
The shoot-down of the commercial Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) airliner as it transited Ukrainian airspace at 33,000 feet on July 17, 2014, and Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility despite Western insistence that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine used a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system in that horrific tragedy, pushed the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to announce today (July 28) they will impose new sanctions imminently. Specifics were not released. The New York Times said Europe will finalize its sanctions package tomorrow (Tuesday), with the United States following suit thereafter.
The White House released a read-out of a telecom among the leaders of the five countries discussing several global hot spots including Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Libya. On this topic, it said only that all agreed on the need for “coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment, and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country…”
At the same time, also according to the New York Times, President Obama formally notified Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States has concluded Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers. Multiple sources reported the news this evening, with most citing the New York Times as breaking the story. President Obama’s letter to Putin is not yet posted on the White House Web site.
Check back here as more details of these actions are made public.
Here is our list of upcoming events for the week of July 28-August 1, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session this week.
During the Week
The House and Senate do not currently have any space policy-related hearings or actions on their public agendas during this last week of legislative work before their August recess. The "August" recess actually extends until September 8, so it's a full five weeks. Despite early rumors last week that they would take up a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) before the break, House Speaker John Boehner made it absolutely clear on Thursday that he would not bring a CR to the House floor until they return in September. He said the CR would last until early December.
The memories of last year's 16-day government shutdown have not faded and a lot of people are hoping the same scenario does not play out again. Many politicians are saying they don't want a shutdown, but whether they will feel the same way after five weeks with their constituents is the big question. Analysts of last year's shutdown argue that one factor that fueled it was constituent angst -- primarily over Obamacare -- directed at their representatives during the August break. (A lot of people blame Congress for not working hard enough and point to the number of days they are in session in Washington. It is important to remember that most of the time they are not in Washington, they are still working, just back in their districts. The August "recess" doesn't mean they are on vacation for five weeks. Indeed, in this election year, they will be interacting with the people whose votes they need and listening carefully to their concerns.)
In any case, for space policy aficionados, most of the action will be in Cleveland, OH with the AIAA's Propulsion and Energy 2014 Conference, or Hampton, VA at NASA's Langely Research Center where the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees are meeting. All of the NAC meetings are available via WebEx and telecom. Instructions are provided in the individual entries on our calendar.
In Washington, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday (available via WebEx/telecom). Also on Thursday, American University (AU) and Explore Mars Inc. are holding an interesting panel discussion at AU on "Is It Time To Search for Life on Mars?" Thought we were already searching for life on Mars? Go to the panel and find out why they titled their event as they did. They've got a great lineup of speakers -- and a reception afterwards. It appears as though it will be webcast (there's a Ustream link on the event's website).
Here's the list of events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.
Monday-Tuesday, July 28-29, 2014
Monday-Wednesday, July 28-30, 2014
Tuesday, July 29
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 29-30
Tuesday-Thursday, July 29-31
Wednesday-Thursday, July 30-31
Thursday, July 31
Correction: An earlier version of this article had incorrect dates for the meeting of the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee. The correct dates are July 28-29 (not July 29-30).
Rumors are circulating that Congress may try to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded after September 30 before they leave for their August recess. Nothing has been decided yet, however.
The House is moving through the 12 regular FY2015 appropriations bills at a fairly fast clip, but none of them has passed the Senate. Hopes that three of the bills could be bundled together as a "minibus" and passed by the Senate died last month over a disagreement about the rules for considering amendments during floor debate. The three bills include two that fund space activities: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), of which NASA and NOAA are part, and Transportation-HUD bill, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The third bill is the Agriculture appropriations.
Congress will be in session this week and next. Then it will recess for the month of August. When they return, the House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 days in September and the first two days of October before recessing to campaign for the November elections. The Senate website does not show how many days it plans to be in session once it returns.
FY2014 ends on September 30. If funding bills -- individually or as a CR -- are not passed by then, the government would have to shut down the unfunded activities. Last year, most of the government was shut down for 16 days. Ninety-eight percent of NASA workers were furloughed.
The shutdown, led by Tea Party Republicans, was over Obamacare and government-wide funding levels. At the time, many Washington pundits argued that the Tea Party lost a lot of support because of the shutdown, but a year later that is not so clear. The Hill reports today that passing a CR before the August recess "could be a way to squelch any talk of a shutdown before it begins."
This week's list of upcoming space policy events starts with tonight -- Sunday, July 20, the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. At 10:39 pm EDT, NASA TV will replay footage of the historic moment of hatch opening and other events. More commemorative Apollo 11 45th anniversary events are planned throughout the week, as listed below.
During the Week
Apollo 11 45th anniversary: Commemorative events continue tomorrow (Monday) when the Operations and Checkout building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be renamed in honor of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012. His Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, will participate in the ceremony, along with Armstrong's backup for the mission, Jim Lovell. The event begins at 10:15 am EDT. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana -- both former astronauts -- also will be there, along with a live video hookup with the two NASA astronauts who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) right now, Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman.
On Thursday, July 24, the anniversary of Apollo 11's return from the Moon, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will have a live video hookup with Swanson and Wiseman at 11:00 am EDT followed by an event that showcases ISS research and features a panel discussion with three leaders in the ISS research field (12:00-2:00 pm EDT). Then, at 3:00 pm PACIFIC time (6:00 pm Eastern), NASA will hold a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego. That features Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Jim Green, the head of NASA's planetary science division, JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the "Mohawk guy" from the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and astronaut Mike Fincke. A media availability with the panel members follows the discussion.
Other Events: On Wednesday, the Marshall Institute will hold a panel discussion on the national security launch industrial base. Josh Hartman, who was one of the members of the "Mitchell panel" that recently reviewed options for dealing with the possibility that the supply of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket could be disrupted, will talk about "issues and opportunities," along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. That's from 9:00-10:30 am EDT at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC.
NASA's Ames Research Center in California is the venue for the "Exploration Science Forum" from July 21-23, and NewSpace 2014, the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, begins on July 24 in San Jose, CA.
Lots of other events are on tap, as listed below based on what we know as of Sunday afternoon, July 20.
Sunday, July 20
Monday, July 21
Monday-Wednesday, July 21-23
Tuesday, July 22
Wednesday, July 23
Wednesday-Thursday, July 23-24
Thursday, July 24
Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26
Here is our list of space policy-related events for the upcoming week, July 13-18, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session.
During the Week
Hopefully this week will get off to a roaring start -- literally -- with the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-2 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Delayed a number of times, as of mid-afternoon today (Saturday) Orbital's Antares rocket is scheduled to lift off from Wallops Island, VA at 12:52 pm ET tomorrow (Sunday, July 13) sending the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS. If the launch does, in fact, take place tomorrow, Cygnus should arrive at the ISS on Wednesday. Follow us on Twitter @SpcPlcyOnline for up to date information on the launch.
The Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this week (subcommittee markup is on Tuesday, full committee on Thursday). One of the more interesting space policy-related issues will be whether it allocates any funding for the Air Force to begin a program to develop an alternative to Russia's RD-180 rocket engines. The House version of the bill adds $220 million to do so even though the White House opposes the addition because it is "premature." The Senate Armed Services Committee recommended $100 million in FY2015 in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, but that bill has not passed the Senate yet.
U.S. dependence on Russian rocket engines is among the topics to be explored at a joint hearing on Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The hearing on Options for Assuring Domestic Access to Space features witnesses from DOD, NASA, GAO and RAND, as well as the chair (retired AF Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell) of a recent Air Force review of alternatives to the RD-180 and the very recently retired head of NASA's Space Launch System and Orion programs (Dan Dumbacher). It's somewhat interesting that NASA will be represented by Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot instead of Administrator Charlie Bolden, who would be closer in rank to the other agency witnesses: Gen. William Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command, and Alan Estevez, Principle Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. Lightfoot, however, is a former director of NASA's rocket-building Marshall Space Flight Center so knows rockets inside and out.
Lots of other interesting events coming up this week. The full list of events that we know of as of Saturday afternoon is shown below.
Sunday, July 13
Monday, July 14
Tuesday, July 15
Wednesday, July 16
Thursday, July 17
Thursday-Friday, July 17-18
Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act today that they say will establish and protect property rights for commercial exploration and exploitation of asteroids.
Two U.S. companies prominently promoting the potential of asteroid mining are Planetary Resources, headquartered in Redmond, WA, and Deep Space Industries in Houston, TX.
In a statement, Posey and Kilmer said that while it may be many years before asteroids actually are mined for their resources, the research is underway now and companies need greater certainty about property rights to what they are mining. Nickel, iron, cobalt and platinum-group minerals (platinum, osmium, iridium, ruthenium, rhodium and palladium) are specifically cited as potential minerals that might be mined on asteroids. They say that their bill will --
The major issue is whether such property rights in space are legal under international law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which the United States and 102 other countries are signatories, prohibits claims of national sovereignty in outer space, including on the Moon and other celestial bodies, which includes asteroids. The treaty also states that governments bear responsibility for the actions by both government and non-government entities -- such as private companies -- to ensure that they abide by the treaty's provisions.
Scholars in space law have long argued over whether the treaty prohibits exploitation of resources entirely. In 2004, the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) issued a statement that "prohibition of national appropriation also precludes the application of any national legislation on a territorial basis to validate a 'private claim'" and it is the "duty" of governments to "implement the terms of the treaty within their national legal systems." The IISL statement was spurred by a company that purports to sell deeds to parcels on the Moon, but has broader applicability. The IISL issued a further statement in 2009 to clarify its position that "any purported attempt to claim ownership of any part of outer space ... or authorization of such claims by national legislation, is forbidden.... Since there is no territorial jurisdiction in outer space or on celestial bodies, there can be no private ownership of parts thereof...." It calls for a "specific legal regime" to be "elaborated through the United Nations, on the basis of present international space law."
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is one of five space treaties negotiated through the United Nations. The United States is signatory to four of the five. A synopsis of all five treaties can be found under the "space law" tab on SpacePolicyOnline.com's home page.
A spokesman for Posey's office said that the bill repeatedly states that it should be implemented "consistent with international obligations" and does not confer ownership rights to asteroids. It only "allows those companies that mine the asteroid to keep what they bring back." The bill affects only U.S. companies engaged in such activities.
Tanja Masson-Zwaan, Deputy Director of the International Institute of Air & Space Law at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, agrees that existing treaties do not seem to prohibit ownership of extracted resources, but adds that exploitation of space resources must comply with general space law principles.
Michael Listner, founder and principal at Space Law and Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, says that the bill is "crafted with international law in mind," but the underlying caveat that property rights will be granted in accordance with international obligations could be a "showstopper." He also points out that the European Space Agency (ESA) is "planning on granting resource rights as well" and asks how claims under this legislation would be reconciled with competing foreign claims.
Marco Ferrazzani, ESA Legal Counsel, said in a July 17 email to SpacePolicyOnline.com that "the European Space Agency is working towards exploration opportunities carried out in international cooperation and in full respect of international space law, with provides for the principle of non-appropriation."
UPDATE: This article was updated on July 17, 2014 to add the quote from ESA's Marco Ferrazzani.
This edition of "What's Happening in Space Policy" covers THREE weeks rather than one since so many people -- including Congress -- are on vacation this coming week as the United States celebrates the July 4th (Independence Day) holiday and future activities have not yet been announced. Here is our list of events June 30 - July 18, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is scheduled to return for legislative business on July 7 and the House on July 8.
During the Weeks
There could be some particularly interesting launches in the next three weeks -- or not.
Russia's launch of its new Angara rocket was postponed in the final minutes of countdown on June 27. As of today (June 29), Russian government and news sources have been silent about what caused the abort or when a new attempt will take place. Angara is a family of launch vehicles that has been under development for about the past 20 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The new vehicles of various capabilities are intended to replace many of the Soviet-era rockets. This suborbital test flight is of the smallest version and carries a dummy payload.
Here in the United States, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket also experienced an anomaly during countdown on June 22. It was the latest delay in the launch of six next-generation communications satellites for Orbcomm. Like the Russians, SpaceX was not very forthcoming about what the problem was or how long it would take to fix. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said during a radio interview on The Space Show this past week, however, that the problem involves the first stage thrust vector control actuator and launch probably will not take place until at least July 14. That information is not posted on SpaceX's website, however.
Also uncertain is when Orbital Sciences will conduct the next cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS), Orb-2. Orbital is investigating the failure of an AJ-26 rocket engine during a May 22 test at Stennis Space Center before deciding whether to clear the Antares rocket designated to take a Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the ISS. The engine that failed is for a launch in 2015, but the company needs to determine whether the problem affects more than that one engine. The "no earlier than" launch date for Orb-2 at the moment is July 10. The launch was originally scheduled for May and initially delayed because a SpaceX cargo flight to ISS was postponed, but the May 22 engine test failure led to several additional delays.
One U.S. launch that is on schedule, as of today at least, is NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2). Launch is scheduled for very early in the morning of July 1 (2:56 am Pacific time, 5:56 am Eastern). OCO-2 is a replacement for the original OCO, which was lost in a launch failure in 2009.
What's on tap in Congress when it returns is up in the air. The House is passing appropriations bills, but the process in the Senate remains stuck. Whether any agreement will be reached to allow progress once the Senate returns on July 7 remains to be seen. The new fiscal year begins on October 1, which may seem a long time away, but Congress will be in recess all of August, so there are few legislative days available to get work done.
In short, the space business and the space policy business is in an uncertain period. Keep checking back here for updates!
Sunday, June 29
Tuesday, July 1
Thursday, July 10
Wednesday, July 16
Thursday, July 17
Thursday-Friday, July 17-18
Here is our list of space policy events coming up in the next week, June 23-27, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
The House has S. 1681, the Senate-passed version of the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, on the suspension calendar for this week. The Senate Intelligence Committee confidently predicted that the House would accept its version of the bill and that is looking likely. Bills considered under suspension of the rules typically are non-controversial and the sponsors expect to achieve a two-thirds aye vote easily. The Senate bill differs in many ways from the House version. For example, it is only for FY2014 while the House-passed bill was for FY2014 and FY2015. If the Senate bill is enacted, it gives Congress another opportunity to weigh in on intelligence issues legislatively in FY2015, which begins October 1. The Senate bill also requires Senate confirmation of the Director and Inspector General of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs, builds and operates the nation's signals and imagery reconnaissance satellites (the bill also requires Senate confirmation of the Director and Inspector General of the National Security Agency). No other space-related bills are on the House agenda as of today (Sunday) and the Senate has only consideration of various nominations on its public schedule. The fate of the appropriations bills that include NASA, NOAA, and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation remains in limbo in the Senate.
The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on the National Research Council's (NRC's) new report on the future of human space exploration on Wednesday. The co-chairs of the NRC committee, Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine, will testify. So far the report has gotten positive responses from Congress via press releases, but this hearing is an opportunity for Members to get their viewpoints on the record and ask questions that highlight their areas of interest. The NRC committee's lack of enthusiasm for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, support for human missions back to the lunar surface, and identification of humans on Mars as the "horizon goal" are all in line with the views of most Members of the House SS&T Committee. One point on which there may be disagreement is the NRC committee's endorsement of space cooperation with China, which Congress has prohibited by law.
Those and other space policy-related events for the upcoming week that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, June 23
Monday-Tuesday, June 23-24
Tuesday, June 24
Wednesday, June 25
Thursday, June 26
Optimism about completing congressional action on at least some FY2015 appropriations bills earlier than usual hit a wall today (June 19) when the Senate postponed action on a set of three appropriations bills, including those that fund NASA, NOAA and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Substantive issues underlie the disagreement, but they are unrelated to the space program and are being manifested in procedural moves.
Since last week, the Senate has been debating the Motion to Proceed to consideration of H.R. 4660, the House-passed FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill. The Senate plans to replace the language passed by the House with an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” – amendment 3244 – incorporating the texts of three appropriations bills that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee – the CJS bill (which includes NASA and NOAA), the Transportation-HUD bill (which includes the FAA), and the Agriculture bill. The combined bill is referred to as a “minibus,” a somewhat joking reference to a smaller version of an “omnibus” appropriations bill that typically groups all 12 regular appropriations bills together.
The issue is how the Senate will deal with amendments to the minibus. The two parties have been at loggerheads for years over what amendments are allowed to be offered during floor debate and whether the amendments can be adopted by majority vote (51 of the 100 votes in the Senate) or if a 60-vote margin is required.
The current breakdown of the Senate is 53 Democrats, two Independents who usually vote with Democrats, and 45 Republicans. An amendment sponsored by Republicans needs to attract just six Democratic votes to win under the majority rule, but 15 if the 60-vote rule is in effect. Conversely, an amendment sponsored by Democrats can pass with support only from other Democrats under majority rule, but requires five Republicans to join them under the 60-vote rule.
Logically, that would mean Democrats would want decisions based on majority vote on the assumption they can get the vast majority of their own party members to vote in favor of Democratic amendments, while Republicans would favor a 60-vote threshold to force Democrats to find at least five Republicans to join them. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued for the 60-vote threshold in the past.
Today, however, he and other Republicans were insisting that amendments to the minibus be able to pass with only 51 votes while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was arguing for the 60-vote threshold.
Divining the intricacies of Senate politics is a treacherous undertaking best left to those with that expertise rather than space policy. However, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, took to the floor today to say that the real issue is that Republicans want to offer amendments that would repeal the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. Indeed, in its Statement of Administration (SAP) policy on the bill, the White House warned against attempts to “advance ideological riders, which the President has made clear are unacceptable.”
The bottom line is that action on the minibus is stalled until the two parties can reach agreement on how to proceed. A timeline for such an agreement is impossible to forecast.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the committee, have been striving to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process. Mikulski said on the floor that she was “sad” with what happened today because it will delay funding for many critical programs and hopes that the appropriations process “does not die today.”
Meanwhile, Senators have been making statements about the bill on the Senate floor while the Motion to Proceed has been under consideration. A NASA issue of particular interest is language inserted in the CJS bill by Shelby, who also is the top Republican on the CJS subcommittee, requiring commercial crew contractors to abide by accounting practices usually required for cost-plus government contracts rather than firm fixed-price contracts. Opponents refer to it as a “poison pill” that will add cost to the program and is particularly disadvantageous to small companies (like SpaceX) that do not have large cadres of personnel experienced in conforming to such regulations. Advocates insist that it adds transparency and will help avoid cost overruns.
Yesterday (June 18), Shelby, a long-standing critic of the commercial crew program, defended the language on the Senate floor saying its intent was “not to up-end a fixed-price contract: rather the goal is to make certain that the price NASA has agreed to pay for vehicle development matches actual development expenditures. NASA and its contractors have a history of cost overruns and schedule delays ... [and] I believe we cannot find ourselves at the eleventh hour with an overburdened program that requires a bailout to succeed.” For his part, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that authorizes NASA’s activities and supports commercial crew, said he wants to work with Mikulski and Shelby as the bill is conferenced with the House “to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.”
The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this evening. The bill is scheduled for House floor action tomorrow. The White House "strongly opposes" the bill for many reasons, one of which is the $220 million it provides to begin development of a new rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for the Atlas V launch vehicle.
The White House asserts that it is premature to commit that level of resources to a new engine while it is still "evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition."
As the SAP says, a recent study of alternatives to the RD-180 concluded that building a new engine would take eight years and cost $1.5 billion, with another $3 billion needed for a suitable launch vehicle to utilize it. The White House apparently believes it can reduce that cost and schedule through public-private partnerships.
Last night, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced that it had awarded commercial contracts to "multiple" U.S. companies to develop concepts for a new U.S. liquid rocket engine that could be ready in five years -- by 2019. ULA said it plans to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year. ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV families of rockets. They are primarily used for national security space launches, as well as for NASA and NOAA satellites. ULA President Michael Gass said that as "the nation's steward of the launch industrial base" it is "incumbent" on the company to "bring forward the best solutions." ULA added that it is evaluating the technical feasibility of the new concepts for "both private investment and the potential for government-industry investment" -- in short, public-private partnerships.
U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 rocket engines for launching national security satellites entered the spotlight earlier this year when the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship deteriorated after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector and is one of the Russians sanctioned by the Obama Administration, threatened to prohibit use of the RD-180s for launching U.S. national security satellites. The response from the Administration and Congress has been to eliminate U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines by building a U.S. alternative, though there clearly are differences in how to accomplish that goal.
Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian rocket engines for the Atlas V dates back to the 1990s, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed. At the time, the Air Force required the company to build a co-production facility in the United States to manufacture the engines independently of Russia in case the geopolitical relationship changed. The Air Force later waived that requirement and Lockheed Martin -- through ULA -- stockpiled a two-year supply of the engines to guard against any such eventuality. Consequently, today the engines are still manufactured in Russia by Energomash and provided to ULA through RD-AMROSS, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies, a U.S. company.
Adding to the complexity of the situation, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a sole-source block-buy contract to ULA in December rather than allowing SpaceX to compete. SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that the Atlas V should be discontinued because of its reliance on Russian engines. U.S. space policy requires that the government support two launch vehicle families to ensure access to space in case one should experience a lengthy hiatus because of a failure. Atlas V and Delta IV are those two families today, but Musk sees a future when it is Delta IV and his American-made Falcon.