Rogozin threatens engine restrictions, ISS lifetime extension

CBS News

Russian-built RD-180 engines that power the first stage of United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket, used to launch U.S. spy satellites, NASA planetary probes and other high-priority payloads, will no longer be sold for use in U.S. military missions, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's deputy prime minister for space and defense, said Tuesday.

In an apparent response to U.S. and European sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Rogozin, who is on the U.S. sanctions list, also said Russia has not yet agreed with the Obama administration's decision to operate the International Space Station through at least 2024.

He said any decision to operate the station beyond the previously agreed-on target of 2020 would depend on a cost-benefit analysis, implying extended operations might not be approved. The space station requires both major partners for normal operations and if Russia decided to pull out in 2020, NASA would have little choice but to follow suit.

"We currently project that we’ll require the ISS until 2020," he said in comments published by the Interfax news agency. "We need to understand how much profit we're making by using the station, calculate all the expenses and depending on the results decide what to do next."

Turning his attention to other programs, Rogozin said Russia will consider halting operations at 11 ground stations in Russia that are used by U.S. Global Positioning System navigation satellites by Sept. 1 if the United States does not allow similar Russian ground stations on American soil.

In a brief statement, NASA noted a long history of joint U.S.-Russian space endeavors and said "ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis" with the planned landing of three station fliers Tuesday night aboard a Russian Soyuz ferry craft and launch of three fresh crew members aboard a Russian rocket later this month.

"We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point," the U.S. space agency said.

United Launch alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, sells Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets to the Air Force and NASA for a wide variety of payloads ranging from high-priority national security satellites to NASA planetary probes.

The Delta 4, designed by Boeing, uses engines built in the United States while Lockheed Martin's Atlas 5 relies on the RD-180 for first stage propulsion. The engines are built by NPO Energomash and sold to ULA by AD AMROSS, a partnership between Energomash and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

ULA's use of the RD-180 in a rocket used to launch critical national security payloads has come under fire in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine.

The Air Force has implemented a study to determine the impact on downstream flights if the supply chain is interrupted and SpaceX, which hopes to compete with ULA for lucrative launch contracts, has filed a complaint in federal court challenging a sole-source Air Force contract with ULA and alleging payments to Russia for the RD-180 violate U.S. sanctions.

A temporary injunction barring future purchases of RD-180 hardware was lifted last week after the departments of Treasury, Justice and State submitted letters saying ULA's purchase of the Russian engines was not in violation. But the SpaceX complaint and Rogozin's comments Tuesday have raised fresh questions about the engine's use in the Atlas 5.

ULA currently has 16 RD-180 engines in the United States, a company spokeswoman said, enough for Atlas 5 flights over the next two years or so.

"We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won't be able to supply them to the U.S.," Rogozin said in the Interfax report.

As for ULA's inventory of 16 engines already in the United States, Rogozin suggested Russian technicians would not be allowed to service already delivered hardware if military payloads are involved.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, ULA said the company was not aware of any formal restrictions.

"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," the company said.

"We are hopeful that our two nations will engage in productive conversations over the coming months that will resolve the matter quickly."

The statement said in a worst-case scenario, ULA could move payloads originally manifested on the Atlas 5 to Delta rockets.

"ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption," the company said. "ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers' needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines."

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin is a board member on the RD-180 Availability Risk Mitigation Study ordered by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Speaking at a conference last week, Griffin would not discuss the findings of the panel, but he said based on the track record of earlier programs building an alternative to the RD-180 would take five or six years "best case."

If the RD-180 is taken off the table, he said, "there will then be, clearly and obviously, multi-year, multi-billion-dollar delays, and the average payload will be delayed several years."

"It will not be good, and it will not be cheap," he said.