Without Russian Rocket Engines, America Will Rely Even More on

July 24, 2013 – 11:38 am

The American supply of Russian rockets is cut off, the replacements aren't nearly ready, and the second option's last liftoff ended in an explosion. Barring an improvement in Russo-American relations, it looks like SpaceX is still heading for a payday.

United Launch Alliance has been handling all of the launches for national security since 2006, and the $70-billion contract runs through 2030. But the end of its monopoly on launching satellites for the Air Force could come much sooner than that. Even though the company is a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket is powered by a Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine.

The crisis in Ukraine cooled relations between the US and Russia to the point Congress ruled that Russian engines can no longer to be sold to American companies. Even though they're still scheduled to get more engines, the Air Force will need to have another rocket engine ready by 2019. The Air Force and ULA have been “openly advocating for some relief from the ban, ” according to Mike Gruss over at Space News.

The ban already has exceptions for an order of 36 RD-180 engines that was placed in 2013. But without more Atlas V rockets, ULA can only offer the more expensive Delta IV rocket. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters that it's not much of a competition between ULA and SpaceX if the only rocket available is the Delta IV, and with the deadline so close, it looks like that's all there will be.

Even with Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin working on engines that may be able to be used in the existing Atlas V rocket body, the most likely replacement is going to be SpaceX's Falcon 9, which has already successfully sent the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

Combine this potential to monopolize putting satellites in orbit for the Air Force with SpaceX's ISS success, and SpaceX looks like it is set to dominate unmanned American spaceflight.

Of course, all of this is subject to change. The field competing to contract to ferry cargo to the ISS is wider this time. Defense contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have muscled in and are competing with newer companies like Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, and Orbital ATK.

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Source: motherboard.vice.com

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