On October 28th a US-built rocket exploded dramatically just seconds after lift-off from its Wallops Island, Virginia, launch pad. Images of the explosion went viral and did little in terms of goodwill between the rocket’s builder Orbital Sciences, and its Russian rocket-engine supplier.
Now the US government has stepped in and a new Defense Policy Bill now processing through Congress would bar the purchase of any more Russian-built engines on US military rockets. The Bill is likely to come into force speedily and is due for formal debate in the House of Representatives this week.
However, the US military has stocks of Russia’s massive RD-180 engines (supplied by Energomash) and used in the giant Atlas-5 rockets which are used to send US military satellites into space. The Bill says these older engines can be used provided they were supplied ahead of the Russian ‘invasion’ of the Crimea region in Ukraine last year.
The Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint-venture United Launch Alliance can now source new engines, but in reality is presented with difficulties. For example, a potential replacement engine from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’-backed Blue Origin company will not be ready much before 2019. The US Air Force is in the process of certifying SpaceX to carry its missions. NASA already has contracts in place with SpaceX.