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Draft House Language Seeks to Halt Air Force Atlas 5 Launches This Year

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Draft legislation circulating in the U.S House of Representatives would bar the use of Russian rocket technology in launching U.S. Defense Department payloads as early as this year.

The language -- drafted this month as the U.S. considers additional sanctions against Moscow over aggression in Ukraine -- aims squarely at the NPO Energomash-built RD-180 engine used to power the first stage of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas 5, a Lockheed Martin-built rocket that launches most U.S. government missions.

Specifically, the language asserts that “no payload acquired or operated by or on behalf of the Department of Defense shall be launched into space by any rocket engine designed or developed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Russian Federation, unless such engine was manufactured inside the United States.”

Denver-based ULA, which also manages government launches of the Boeing Delta 4 rocket, currently holds a virtual monopoly on U.S. Air Force national security space missions.

If passed into law this year as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, the congressional direction could force the Air Force to launch satellites on the more-expensive Delta 4.

The language coincides with an announcement last week by Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which is suing the U.S. Air Force for the right to compete for more launches of national security missions.

Last year, under congressional direction, the Air Force began implementing a competitive acquisition strategy for space launch missions under the service's Evolved Expendable Launch Vechile (EELV) program. In December, Air Force leaders signed a contract with ULA for the purchase 35 new launch vehicle cores, including Atlas 5, leaving up to 14 EELV launches open to competition.

Although the language provides an exception for engines acquired under an existing contract, it does so “provided that physical control of such engines in the United States occurs prior to Oct. 1, 2014.”

In April, ULA told The Hill it had hastened deliveries of RD-180 engines this year, doubling the annual number of shipments from one to two in 2014.

ULA says its U.S. inventory includes two years' worth of RD-180 engines, which are distributed in the U.S. by RD AMROSS, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies Corp.

Lawmakers argue the EELV contract was signed ahead of anticipated certification of the SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket, which would allow the company to compete with ULA for Air Force missions. However, at the time the EELV contract was signed, Falcon 9 v1.1 had conducted just one successful satellite launch to geosynchronous orbit, the neighborhood of most communications spacecraft, including those orbited for the Air Force.

SpaceX, which has flown the Falcon 9 v1.1 four times since its fall 2013 debut, needs three successful launches to qualify as a new entrant to the Air Force's EELV program, and the company says Air Force certification is expected this year.

However, in March the Air Force said it had halved the number of missions open to tender, deferring several payloads beyond the current contract ending in fiscal 2017 and potentially further reducing the number of satellite launches for which SpaceX can compete.

While the draft House language could help boost SpaceX's chances against ULA, space industry officials say any legislation blocking the use of Russian space technology in U.S. hardware could have broader knock-on effects with regard to Washington's space ties with Russia.

In a letter to House lawmakers, the Satellite Industries Association (SIA) decried language that would prevent the use of Russian technology in any U.S.-built space systems. While the draft legislation targets the RD-180 specifically, SIA says it could easily be broadened to include the U.S.-modified Kuznetsov-built NK-33 engines – two of which power the Ukrainian-built boost stage of the Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket -- as well as other Russian space hardware.

“We have little confidence that such policies would not expand eventually to capture any number of other Russian technologies, whether through Congressional expansion or Russian retaliatory actions,” according to an April 11 draft of the SIA letter, which is addressed to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, and ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn).

In the meantime, an Air Force-directed study led by retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Mitch” Mitchell, former head of Air Force Space Command operations and currently vice president of program assessments for the Aerospace Corp., is evaluating RD-180 availability. Also participating in the review is former NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

Known as the RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study, the review was originally discussed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in March testimony before the House Armed Services Committee. The study will focus on issues, risks, costs and options associated with Russian engines in the context of the crisis in Ukraine. The study, which is due in May, will also examine multiple scenarios for ensuring the availability of RD-180 engines, as well as long-term mitigation options for meeting launch requirements, and propose recommendations for a way-ahead.

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