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GOP congressional leaders promise action to cut out use of Russian engines for U.S. space launches

The movement is intended to spur the replacement for the Russian-made RD-180 engine, which powers the U.S.'s workhorse Atlas V rocket.
By Doug G. Ware   |   Updated Jan. 27, 2016 at 5:30 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- The United States relies far too much on Russian ingenuity when it launches items critical to national security and intelligence into space -- at least, that's how two of the most influential Republicans in Congress see it.

Arizona senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, announced Wednesday that they will introduce legislation in both chambers to severely limit how much American defense and intelligence agencies are legally permitted to piggyback on rockets powered by Russian engineering.

The measures, specifically, seek to repeal a provision placed into a defense spending bill last year that allows American agencies to continue to purchase the Russian-made RD-180 engines that power the Atlas V rocket.

Much of what the United States launches into space takes a ride on the workhorse Atlas V -- including items manufactured by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between American aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

NASA also relies on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. But rising tensions between Moscow and Washington over the last two years, largely over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, has put the nations' space partnerships under a blanket of growing uncertainty.

"It is morally outrageous and strategically foolish to ask American taxpayers to subsidize Russia's military industrial base when Vladimir Putin occupies Crimea and destabilizes Ukraine, menaces our NATO allies in Europe, violates the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, sends weapons to Iran, and bombs U.S.-backed forces in Syria to prop-up the murderous regime of Bashar Assad," McCain, also chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "This legislation is vital to ensuring the United States does not depend on Vladimir Putin's regime for assured access to space."

"Securing access to space is a national security priority and essential to leading in a 21st century economy," McCarthy noted.

Without the Russian propulsion hardware, the alliance has said it wouldn't be able to put much at all into orbit -- especially because the RD-180 is the only engine that can power the Atlas V -- and any American-made replacement is still years away.

Last month, ULA ordered more of the Russian-made engines "until a new American-made engine can be developed and certified."

ULA is presently working with Blue Origin on the development of a replacement engine, the BE-4, that could be used on the new rocket the alliance is developing, The Washington Post reported.

Defense spending bills passed in 2015 and 2016 both attempted to restrict use of the RD-180, but appropriators included a last-minute provision in the 2016 version to lift the restriction out of concern it could harm ULA and leave the Pentagon with just one launch option -- the budding and less-experienced aerospace firm SpaceX.

"[Progress] was achieved in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law. But in a last minute maneuver, a provision was tucked into an unrelated spending bill that provides an indefinite lifeline to Russian rocket engines to power American space launches," McCarthy said. "Placing such a critical aspect of our future in the hands of a country that names the United States as a threat is not only foolish, it undermines the ingenuity happening across the country."

On the Senate floor, McCain called the provision that killed the restriction "an egregious exercise of pork barrel parochialism."

The NDAA restrictions were intended to punish Russia for its annexation of Crimea and ongoing activity in Ukraine.

McCain was critical of Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James at Wednesday's hearing and told her that Putin's government has made tens of millions of dollars by selling RD-180 engines to the United States.

"Does that disturb you, madam secretary?" McCain asked, to which James replied simply, "Yes."

A top Pentagon weapons official said at the hearing Wednesday that the Defense Department would not be comfortable with ULA out of the picture and SpaceX as the lone available aerospace option. He did acknowledge, though, that the U.S. military shares McCain's view that a replacement for the Russian engines is needed.

"We are anxious to move forward so that we can end the use of the RD-180 and take advantage of the emerging commercial space launch service market," Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said. "The basic business deal we have in mind is that the department will, through competition, provide at least two launch service providers with some of the capital they need to develop, test and certify the launch systems they will use to provide us with launch services in the future." . Kendall said the Pentagon hopes to award contracts beginning in fiscal year 2017.

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