A few months ago, Russian media reported that the Russian government was considering a ban on the exports of the RD-180 engine, a Russian-built engine that propels the first stage of the Atlas V rocket. There’s no evidence that this proposed ban has gone anywhere, and officials with United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds the Atlas V, sound unconcerned. “This isn’t the first time that there have been articles about Russia cutting off RD-180 exports. There’s never been any perturbation in the process,” ULA’s Andrew Aldrin said at the AIAA Space 2013 conference in September in San Diego.
Still, some remain concerned about the reliance on the RD-180. Earlier this month, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced legislation to study the use of the RD-180. S. 1679 would require the Defense Department to submit a report on the use of the RD-180, including the ability and cost to manufacture an alternative engine in the US. “America has the finest defense industry in the world,” Toomey said in a statement. “I question why that industry cannot produce a cost-effective system that will avoid relying on a nation that continues to pose a threat to our national security.”
Some in industry would like to see greater domestic investment in engines like the RD-180 that use kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. “What development that’s going on in kerosene today is at a really low level,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Jim Maser told a meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) in Washington last month. “I would argue that it’s obvious that, as a nation, we are falling behind the Russians and now, likely, even the Chinese in the development of kerosene-based boost propulsion.” (Maser noted that SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, but called it small and “relatively low performance” compared to the RD-180.)
There’s good reason to think that a study of US reliance on the RD-180 sounds familiar. The fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill included a provision in section 916 requiring “an independent assessment of the national security implications of continuing to use foreign component and propulsion systems for the launch vehicles under the evolved expendable launch vehicle program.” That report has not been publicly released yet, so Sen. Toomey introduced this month an amendment to the fiscal year 2014 authorization bill being considered by the full Senate asking the Comptroller General for “a report reviewing the report prepared by the Rand Corporation pursuant to section 916 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.” Yes, a report about a report.