Law360, New York (July 16, 2014, 5:33 PM EDT) — Senate Armed Services and Commerce committee members expressed frustration about the U.S.’s continued reliance on Russian rockets for NASA and Air Force space launches Wednesday and debated adding more funds to expedite efforts to build a new generation of American-made launch vehicles.
Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said that the recent reliance on the Atlas V rocket, which uses Russia’s RD-180 engine as a key component, made sense in the near term, saying that the rocket is “probably the most advanced rocket engine in the world” and has proven both cost-effective and reliable.
“If you look at the Atlas V performance, there’s nothing to complain about,” Shelton said. “But in my opinion it’s time to move on from reliance on that foreign engine.”
Russia’s role in American space programs has become a topic of debate thanks to rising tensions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the U.S. sanctions that followed. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who heads Russia’s defense industry, has floated the possibility of restricting U.S. access to its engines, and reportedly suggested that the U.S. “use a trampoline” to send astronauts to the International Space Station.
Those remarks have played into the debate over both NASA’s civilian spaceflight programs and the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which sends military satellites into space. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, which is jockeying for the chance to compete with the Air Force’s EELV contractor, United Launch Alliance, has positioned its U.S.-made Falcon rockets as an alternative to the Russian rockets used by ULA.
If tensions worsen and Russia carries out the threat to cut off RD-180 rocket sales, the move would significantly disrupt the Air Force’s national security launches, Shelton said. But both he and RAND Corp. senior engineer Yool Kim said that that is unlikely, because the Russian space industry relies on money from U.S. space launches. And even if Russia stops selling the rockets, the U.S. could use its stockpile of 15 Atlas V rockets to continue with the most significant space launches for at least two years, although it would have to give up some lower-priority launches to make that work, Kim said.
When asked about the ability of SpaceX to pick up the slack, Shelton pointed out that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, used to deliver NASA cargo to the ISS, cannot handle heavier and more sensitive launches, and its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is in the same class as the Atlas V, is not as close to certification for space launches. Under current plans, the Falcon 9 rocket will be certified for Air Force launches by December, Shelton said.
Many senators seemed eager to speed the development and certification of U.S. rockets and space vehicles, asking whether additional funding could accelerate that process. But witnesses said that federal procurements and development of new technology can’t always and shouldn’t always be rushed.
“Part of the issue we’re dealing with is we’re in the middle of a procurement, so we have a procurement right now that we’ll make a selection on later this year,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert M. Lightfoot said. “Having not seen the proposals, I can’t tell you what the acceleration options are, but we’re in 2014 already. When you order a rocket, you typically order them three years in advance, so that’s where we are.”
SpaceX, which has sued the Air Force for entering into a five-year deal with ULA while it was gearing up for launch certification, was a frequent topic of senators’ questions. Senators questioned the Air Force’s claimed $4.4 billion in cost savings for its recent five-year contract, as well as an earlier comment from Shelton that seemed to criticize SpaceX for taking the Air Force to court. Other asked why SpaceX’s rockets were good enough to deliver cargo to the ISS for NASA but not good enough to take military satellites into space.
Lightfoot said that the cargo deliveries were relatively low-priority and low-risk, so NASA accepted some additional risk in starting those deliveries and speeding SpaceX’s certification for future delivery of more sensitive cargo, including high-tech research equipment and, eventually, NASA astronauts. In the process, NASA took SpaceX through very rigorous testing of its ability to navigate in space and safely dock with the ISS, which are less applicable to the Air Force’s launch needs.
Senators also criticized the Air Force for sharply reducing the number of near-future EELV launches that it planned to open up for competition, from 14 to seven in the Air Force’s 2015 budget proposal. Shelton replied that the Air Force, trying to save money, cut five launches of GPS satellites, which are available to competition because they don’t require a rocket as heavy as the Atlas V, because it realized that its GPS networks didn’t require as much maintenance as it had thought. The heavier launches, reserved to ULA, were generally preserved, but one was canceled, which required the Air Force to give them one of the lighter launches from the formerly competitive pool to keep the terms of the five-year contract, Shelton said.
“We didn’t need to procure the GPS launches on the schedule that we thought we needed, so we stretched those launches out. That resulted in the loss of five of the seven launches that we had set aside for competition,” Shelton said. “It really wasn’t an anti-competitive thing.”
While lawmakers were frustrated by the pace of getting new rockets into production, the deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, Alan Estevez, said that developing new technology isn’t always as easy as “throwing money at the problem.”
“Without sounding glib, it is rocket science,” Estevez said.