Russian rocket science eludes US space programme

Moscow may impose a ban on all rocket engine exports to the US. Source:AP

Moscow may impose a ban on all rocket engine exports to the US. Source:AP

The double whammy of Russian sanctions and the failure of the Antares rocket have exposed America’s complete dependence on Russian rocket technology.

The ambitious US space programme has come crashing down to earth. With Moscow banning the use of its rocket engines for military purposes, and the heavy lift Antares rocket – which uses Russian engines – exploding on its Virginia launch pad, the planned American surge into space looks increasingly unlikely.

The double whammy has revealed the true extent of American dependence on Russia in the space sector. The US relies on two powerful engines made in Russia – the RD-180 and NK-33. The RD-180 rocket engines are imported by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between leading weapons contractors Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, to power its Atlas rockets. ULA is the sole supplier of rocket launches for the Pentagon, which means the American military requires the Atlas rockets to place its spy satellites in space.

Here’s how the US lost its head. The company that makes the RD-180 is called NPO Energomash, and it is part of the Russian aerospace industry, which comes under Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. In March, the US Treasury sanctioned Rogozin, the reason perhaps being that he is one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisors.

Moscow’s response was swift. Within days Rogozin declared Russia would no longer export rocket engines to the US to launch military satellites. Henceforth, Russian engines can be used only to launch civilian payloads.

So why does the US want Made in Russia rockets? For starters, the RD-180 is a 5.5 ton engine that is 11.5 ft tall and 10.25 ft diameter marvel of simple, reliable, powerful and affordable rocket motor design. According to Wired magazine: “Not only is the RD-180 more powerful than any of its American-made counterparts, but unlike US engines, it can be throttled up and down during flight, making for a much smoother and more efficient ride.”

It adds: “The Russians don't worry about cosmetics or workmanship. They build the thing and test the shit out of it. This engine cost $10 million and produces almost 1 million pounds of thrust. You can't do that with an American-made engine.”

Strategy Page reports: “Some American rocket experts (like Charles Vick) suspected during the Cold War that Russia had cheaper, more powerful and reliable rocket engines like this but these claims were dismissed by most American rocket experts. After the Cold War ended in 1991 the US got a close look at Russian rocket engines and realized Vick was right. By the end of the 1990s the US had a long-term contract to buy modified (to work in the American Atlas V rocket) RD-180s from Russia and a license to build RD-180s in the U.S. (using some Russian components that would be much more expensive to manufacture in America).”

The US currently has two years’ supply of RD-180 engines, and also has a license to produce the RD-180. In order to get production going you first have to develop the western suppliers for all the components now supplied by Russia. “This could take five years,” says Strategy Page. “Best case is that it would cost the US an additional $2.5 billion dollars to set up production and obtain more expensive launch services elsewhere in the meantime. Since the best case rarely happens it is more likely that it would take seven years to get RD-180 production going and cost at least an additional $5 billion to pay for launch alternatives. Many satellite launches would be delayed three years or more.”

The US originally had two rockets – the Atlas and the Delta. But because of the RD-180 the Atlas 5 is more attractive, in terms of performance and price, than the Delta 4.

The other Russian import, NK-33, is at the heart of the heavy lift Antares rocket, which is key to America’s future space exploration programme. The NK-33 was built in the 1960s to power the Russian manned mission to the moon but – in keeping with the opaque nature of Soviet decision making – was scrapped when the Americans landed on the moon first.

The program was shut down and all work on the project was ordered destroyed. However, a Russian bureaucrat who knew the worth of these engines hid them in a warehouse. When the Soviet Union dissolved some of the overly keen – and pro-West – Russian diplomats threw the crown jewels of the Russian space industry to visiting Americans – many of whom were undoubtedly spies. One of the engines was taken to America, where the scientists realised they had nothing in comparison.

A request for import was made, and in the mid-1990s Russia sold 36 engines to Aerojet General for a paltry $1.1 million each. Crucially, the company also acquired a license for the production of new engines, and the first Antares rocket using the NK-33 was successfully launched from Virginia on April 21, 2013.

The October 28 explosion of the Antares will have a direct bearing on the future of US space exploration. NASA has drawn up big plans in space, but without mastering the art of grafting Russian rocket engines on to the Antares, those plans will not achieve liftoff. The failure of the latest test indicates American scientists have been unable to master the complex technologies that have been transferred by the Russians.

As of now, Rogozin has only banned military use of rocket engines. Russia will continue shipping the RD-180s because it needs the money. After the once elite Soviet space industry collapsed, it was the profit from the RD-180 sales that kept several Russian firms afloat.

However, if sanctions start hitting the Russian economy, then Moscow will have nothing to lose by imposing a ban on all rocket engine exports. And that will hurt the Americans more as they don’t have rockets at this moment. Its massive Big Bird spy satellites will be grounded, leaving US intelligence services without their big eye in sky.

The US also relies on Russia for space ferry services. With its shuttle fleet – in reality a white elephant – now retired, the US relies totally on Russian rockets such as the Soyuz to supply the International Space Station. Without regular supplies launched from Russia, the ISS would have to abandoned and perhaps scuttled.

In their headlong rush the Americans failed to factor in that sanctions can be a double edged sword. The Russian reaction is entirely in keeping with the principles of reciprocity. As far as Moscow is concerned, making the rogues of the new Cold War pay for their impudence is fair trade.

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