A week after Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin ignited a firestorm with a claim that Russia would ban the use of RD-180 engines for launching American military payloads, the head of Air Force Space Command said that operations were proceeding as usual and urged a “pause” in the debate.
“There have been no official pronouncements out of the Russian government on the RD-180. There has been the one ‘twitter’ out of one government official that has caused everybody concern,” said Gen. William Shelton in a press conference at the 30th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs Tuesday morning. “It’s time that we all kind of paused and and make sure we understand the messages and make sure we understand where the messages are coming from officially.”
While Shelton appeared to be referring to this tweet from Rogozin, others at the press conference noted Rogozin made the comments at a press conference in Moscow. Shelton, though, said there was still a need to understand the official government position. “I think it’s a time to pause and find out if that’s the official position,” he said. “Right now, I don’t think we have an indication that it really is where the government comes down on this in the long term. And there are other indications that ‘business as usual’ is the state of play with Russian industry.”
Shelton, though, said he personally supported proposals to develop a new large “hydrocarbon boost” rocket engine in the US. “There’s a debate to be had, and I think it will occur over the next four to five months,” he said, noting that while some in Congress support new engine development (there is language to that effect in the House defense authorization bill), other, unnamed people in government don’t necessarily agree. Shelton added that he supported development a new engine development, helping support the space industrial base, over co-production of the RD-180 in the US. “All of the studies we did in the past indicated that the cost to co-produce versus the cost of developing a new engine were about in the same ballpark,” he said.
Shelton also addressed the SpaceX launch competition controversy, saying that the Air Force was committed to competition and getting SpaceX certified. “When you’re spending $60 million and putting 100 people against the problem to get somebody certified, it’s hard to say you’re excluding them,” he said of the Air Force’s investment in getting the SpaceX Falcon 9 certified. He added that he thought it would be difficult to accelerate the certification process, which won’t be done before the end of the year, “and I think SpaceX would have a hard time going faster than they are now.”
As for the SpaceX lawsuit, Shelton said this: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.” But as others have noted, contract protests and other suits over government business are hardly uncommon in the industry.