Senator John McCain is threatening not to support Congress’ massive budget bill for 2016 — all because of one sentence concerning rocket engines. The provision would lift a controversial ban that prohibits the US Air Force from using Russian rocket engines to launch its satellites. McCain is demanding that the language be struck from the legislation — or he won't support it. The bill goes up for vote in the Senate on Friday, December 18th.
The bill currently authorizes the US Air Force to award its launch contracts to anyone with a certified vehicle, "regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle." This sentence would provide a reprieve for the United Launch Alliance, which is currently the military's primary launch provider. Right now, Russian-made engines are banned by the military — and those are what ULA uses in its premier rocket. ULA is scrambling to replace the Russian engines, but should the ban be lifted, ULA would then be free to compete for the Defense Department's launch contracts without having to modify its vehicles. If McCain has his way, though, and the language is struck, ULA may not be able to launch military satellites for three to four years as it scrambles to create a new rocket.
This sentence would provide a reprieve for the United Launch Alliance
On the Senate floor, McCain argued that ULA has simply "manufactured a crisis" — claiming ULA has enough time to update its engines. According to McCain, lifting the ban "will have U.S. taxpayers subsidize Russian aggression and 'comrade capitalism.'" In response, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who added the new provision to the bill, criticized McCain and Congress for "recklessly" restricting the use of Russian engines in the first place. Shelby argues the ban would prevent ULA from competing for launch contracts, and therefore limit the Air Force's access to space in the near-term. Shelby also has a stake in helping ULA; the company has a rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama that’s more than a million square feet in size.
McCain spearheaded a ban on Russian rocket engines after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, which included language forbidding the Air Force from dealing with "Russian suppliers of rocket engines" for its launches. It was meant as a way to cut off funds to the Russian economy and to lessen the US military's dependence on Russian technology. But Shelby argues McCain was also trying to help out SpaceX, which wants to get into the business of launching military satellites. Prohibiting Russian engines would eliminate ULA as competition, and SpaceX is the only other private company currently authorized to conduct military launches. If ULA’s experimental new engines aren’t ready in time, SpaceX will have no competitors for military contracts.
The RD-180 being tested at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. (NASA)
After the 2015 legislation passed, ULA was faced with a choice: update its Atlas V rocket or lose the military's business. ULA's Atlas V is its flagship vehicle — it’s relatively cheap to launch and has never failed, making it the go-to rocket for the Air Force. But the Atlas V's main engine is the RD-180, made by Russian firm NPO Energomash. Before the ban on Russian engines, ULA had already stockpiled enough for military launches through 2019 — but it can't purchase any more to launch Air Force satellites. So in September 2014, ULA announced a partnership with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his private spaceflight company Blue Origin to create a new engine, called the BE-4. The engine will be used in a brand-new ULA rocket called Vulcan, meant to replace the Atlas V.
ULA was faced with a choice: update its Atlas V rocket or lose the military's business
Vulcan and its new engine haven't been built yet. It will be ready for testing — not missions — in 2019, when ULA runs out of Russian engines. That means Vulcan won't be ready for military, civilian, or commercial launches until 2022 or 2023. What’s more, Blue Origin, founded in 2000, doesn’t have as much experience as NPO Energomash, which has been making engines since 1940s. That could mean testing will take longer, and may not go as smoothly. If the engine isn't completed and tested on time, the company may have to wait even longer than that to launch for the military again. ULA has already withdrawn from bidding for a future military satellite launch, citing the rocket engine ban.
The only existing alternative for putting military satellites in orbit is SpaceX, which was approved for military launches in May. SpaceX has cheap launches and its rockets are all American-made. But SpaceX's safety record isn't as good as ULA's, nor is it as long; what's more, Musk's company has never performed a single national security launch. If ULA can't launch and SpaceX proves unreliable, the military may lose easy access to space, Shelby argued. McCain doesn't agree; he says that the ULA's Delta IV, which uses an American-made engine, is also a viable option. However, ULA has been phasing out the Delta IV because it's much more expensive to launch than the Atlas V.
It’s not clear how the Senate will vote on Friday, but McCain seems willing to put up a fight. And if the omnibus bill is signed as is, McCain has vowed to ban Russian engines all over again in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017. ULA may get a momentary stay of execution, but it’s still got to get the Vulcan ready for missions. Another provision in the budget bill may make that easier, though: more than $227 million is earmarked for the military to spend on a replacement for the RD-180 — which must be ready by 2019. That way, ULA doesn’t have to spend money to develop the engine, and can have an American-made replacement. Maybe that will help to keep the reliable rocket in business for a little while longer.