The saga of the use of the RD-180 engine in the United States took a new turn on Tuesday when Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin indicated that RD-180 engines exported to the US for use on the Atlas V could not be used for launches of military payloads. “Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon,” he said on Twitter, amplifying comments he made at a press conference.
It is not clear how such a ban on military launches alone could be enforced, since Russia does not control the engines once they are exported by NPO Energomash to United Launch Alliance in the US. Russia could, of course, ban exports of RD-180 engines entirely, but still could do nothing about the engines already in the US; ULA officials have previously said they maintain a supply to support at least two years’ worth of launches.
Rogozin’s comments on military use of the RD-180 was one of several space-related moves he made in apparent response to American sanctions on Russia, including him personally. He said that GPS ground stations in Russian territory would have to shut down on June 1 unless the US agreed to allow Russia to establish similar stations for GLONASS in the US. (The fiscal year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision banning ground stations for non-GPS satellite navigation systems unless the Secretary of Defense and Director of National Intelligence certified to Congress such facilities were not also used for intelligence gathering or improving weapons systems, our of concerns proposed GLONASS stations would do just that.) He also indicated that Russia would not support continued participation in the International Space Station after 2020. Prior to the increase in US-Russia tensions because of the Ukraine crisis, Russian officials appeared to support operating the ISS until at least 2024.
Update 7:55 pm: the Russian government has posted a transcript of the press conference Tuesday featuring Rogozin and Roscosmos chief Oleg Ostapenko. A rough translation of the transcript backs up the statements in the media and by Rogozin himself on Twitter. In particular, Rogozin says the ban also extends to the NK-33 engine, although it’s not clear would be using that engine (Orbital Sciences uses an “Americanized” version of that engine, designated AJ26 by Aerojet Rocketdyne, but those engines are already in the US, and Orbital has talked about re-engining the Antares first stage rather than try to acquire more NK-33/AJ26 engines.) Rogozin also says the restriction on the use of RD-180 engines for US military missions would mean that Russian workers would not carry out necessary maintenance on engines already delivered the US.
If Rogozin’s comments reflect new Russian policy (which the publication of the press conference transcript on a Russian government website woudl suggest), that new policy has not made its way to officials in the US. In a statement emailed by NASA to selected members of the media, the agency said its operations of the ISS were unaffected. “We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point,” the statement read.
ULA also said it was not aware of any changes in use of RD-180 engines on its vehicles. “ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions,” it said in another emailed statement. It went on, though, to base a domestic company for these problems. “However, if recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened U.S. military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.”