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Judge halts Air Force purchase of Russian engines

May. 1, 2014 - 04:57PM   |  
Russian-made RD-180 engines power United Launch Alliance's Atlas V vehicles.
Russian-made RD-180 engines power United Launch Alliance's Atlas V vehicles. (United Launch Alliance)
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WASHINGTON — A judge has issued an injunction against the purchase of Russian-made engines for the United Launch Alliance (ULA), citing American sanctions against the head of Russia’s space program.

The injunction, filed Wednesday by Judge Susan Braden, prevents the United Launch Alliance and the US Air Force from “making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity, whether governmental, corporate or individual, that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister [Dmitry] Rogozin.”

The news is another hit against ULA and comes as a result of a lawsuit filed by upstart launch company SpaceX, which is seeking to overturn an Air Force decision to award ULA a block buy of 36 launch contracts.

Rogozin was placed on the sanctions list by President Obama as a result of the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine. He was highlighted as a concern by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in an April 25 press conference announcing the lawsuit.

“The person who, sort of, heads up Russian space activities is Dmitry Rogozin, who’s on the sanctions list,” Musk said. “So it seems pretty strange. How is it we’re sending hundreds of millions of US taxpayer money at a time when Russia is in the process of invading the Ukraine? It would be hard to imagine someway which Dmitry Rogozin is not benefiting closely from the dollars that are being sent there.

“We think this deserves to have a spotlight on it. Let the sun shine on this, and as I say sunlight is the best disinfectant and if everything is fine then I guess that’s great. But that seems unlikely to me.”

Last week, Rogozin seemed to anticipate being tied to the space industry, tweeting from his English account @DRogozin “Do they think that I keep the money from sales of our engines from state enterprises for myself? Morons.”

On Tuesday, Rogozin threatened to withhold access to the International Space Station from US astronauts, tweeting “After analysing the sanctions against our space industry I suggest the US delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”

The engine question is the RD-180, which ULA has been using in its Atlas V vehicle for 20 years. Any orders placed before the injunction will not be impacted, according to the filing.

In the short term, ULA should not be harmed by the injunction. The company says it has a two-year stockpile of RD-180 engines, and also has the option of leaning heavily on its Delta IV vehicle rather than the Atlas V.

But if sanctions drag on, the company will begin hitting up against the need to order more RD-180s or find another solution.

As of now, there is no alternate engine capable of meeting the Atlas V’s needs. The House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee requested $220 million for the next five years to develop and produce an US-based alternative engine as part of its budget markup, but even if that program is funded and completed on schedule the timeline would not work out for the Atlas V.

A spokesperson for ULA could not be immediately reached for comment.

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