The Congressional Research Service said the United States would not be able to replace the Russian RD-180 rocket engine for at least another 10 years. The experts came to this conclusion after analyzing the state of the Space Launch Program in the interests of national security. The report was reviewed by RT.

According to analysts, the transition to an alternative engine or an American-made launch vehicle will not do without technical, software or organizational risks. It is unlikely that it will be possible to achieve the efficiency and reliability that the RD-180 possesses until 2030, according to the Research Service.

“Even if the transition from RD-180 to other engines or launch vehicles is smooth and carried out exactly on schedule, it is likely that the performance and reliability indicators achieved at the moment when using the RD-180 can be reproduced only much later than 2030.” - the report says.

The number of successful sequential launches at the RD-180 since 2000 has reached approximately 81, the researchers specify. They took place in the field of civil and commercial space exploration, as well as in the field of ensuring the national security of the States.

Recall that RD-180 produces the scientific and production association Energomash. The United States uses the Russian engine to disperse the first stage of the Atlas V disposable two-stage launch vehicle, which launches US Air Force military satellites and NASA research vehicles. The contract for the supply of the apparatus was first concluded in 1997, and then was repeatedly extended. In 2016, the US Senate agreed on the purchase of 18 rocket engines until 2022.

However, at the end of this period, Washington plans to abandon the RD-180. In April last year, this was announced by the head of the U.S. Air Force space command John Raymond.

“Our launch strategy is working. We have 76 of 76 successful launches. Costs have been reduced by 24% since 2012. We are moving within the framework of the plan in the matter of avoiding dependence on RD-180, ”he said.

Moreover, in 2019, the Pentagon imposed a ban on cooperation with Russia and a number of other countries in space launches. Restrictions apply to satellites, as well as launchers for their launch. The decision of the military department will enter into force on December 31, 2022.

In "Roskosmos" such a move was called unfair competition. According to the state corporation, US authorities are destroying bilateral relations between countries in the space industry and depriving American companies of the opportunity to work with Russia.

“In fact, this is an attempt to deprive American manufacturers of the opportunity to work with the Russian rocket and space industry, to artificially limit the use of Russian launch vehicles on the international market. The Pentagon wants to destroy what has been created and maintained in Russian-American relations in the field of space with such difficulty, ”the Roskosmos statement said.

However, the Congressional Research Service emphasizes that the US Air Force foresees a number of serious problems associated with the abandonment of Russian engines and the transition to a competitive space launch market. In particular, we are talking about the recent decision of the United Launch Alliance to decommission the Delta IV Medium launch vehicle. It was used to launch the heaviest military satellites. Fears are also caused by the fact that now SpaceX remains the only supplier that meets national security requirements. In addition, the RD-180 purchase restrictions that apply during the transitional period may affect Atlas V launch schedule.

As explained to RT by the head of the Space Policy Institute, Ivan Moiseev, at the moment there are no analogues in the world to the Russian RD-180. He noted that Washington’s decision to abandon the engine in the future is likely to be unprofitable.

“RD-180 is a very good engine; it is the best at the moment in its class of heavy oxygen-kerosene engines. RD-180 became the founder of a whole family of engines that are now actively used by us and sold in the United States. It would be beneficial for the Americans to build their new missiles also on the basis of our engine, ”Moiseyev said.

According to him, the US stocks of RD-180 may be enough for launches just before 2030. According to NPO Energomash, last year six engines were transferred to the American side. In addition, six RD-180 engines are planned to be sent to the United States in 2020.

American experts took part in the creation of the RD-180 in the 90s and even received some of the documents, but they failed to develop their own engine with the same characteristics, said military expert Alexei Leonkov.

“The American engine lost to the Russian one in many ways about twice,” he added.

At the same time, Leonkov recalled that in recent years, the States have several times announced plans to abandon the RD-180, but this did not happen.

“The USA made this decision earlier, planned to refuse by 2018, then by 2019, 2020, and now by 2022. The figure is constantly shifting in the hope that they will have their own fairly cheap and reliable analogue. Dates pass, but without our engines, nowhere. Let's see what happens this time, ”the expert said.

  • Pentagon building
  • AFP

Political decision

The search for an alternative to the RD-180 began in the United States in 2015, analysts at the congress write. The reason for the intensification of the process was the reaction of Moscow to American sanctions after the events in Ukraine.

“Russia's negative reaction to the sanctions imposed by the United States in 2014 in connection with its actions in Ukraine exacerbated an already serious problem and reinforced long-rooted internal concerns about the US’s dependence on the Russian rocket engine (RD-180), which is equipped with the main missiles used for critical critical space launches carried out in the interests of national security, ”the report says.

Recall, Washington has limited cooperation with Moscow because of the conflict in southeastern Ukraine and the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation.

As the researchers indicate, after the alleged “attack” of Russia on Ukraine, the United States imposed sanctions against a number of Russian individuals and legal entities, including the head of Roskosmos Dmitry Rogozin.

In response, the Russian Federation announced the possible cancellation of supplies of the RD-180. The report quotes the general director of the state corporation that Moscow will not be able to supply engines to the United States unless it receives guarantees that they are used exclusively for civilian purposes. This reaction has caused concern in expert circles.

“Many observers were worried that Russia might suddenly impose a complete ban on the export of this engine to the United States or, to some extent, restrict the export of military products,” the Research Service said.

It is noteworthy that in 2014 the United States tried to introduce a ban on the purchase of the RD-180, but soon abandoned this idea because it could not find a replacement. Former astronaut, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Bill Nelson, explained that hasty abandonment of the Russian engine could jeopardize United States national security.

In the same 2014, the Pentagon formed a commission to decide on the possible loss of the RD-180, the report emphasizes. She recommended not to organize joint production of the device in the United States, but to spend $ 141 million to develop a new American engine by 2022.

As it became known earlier, the US Air Force has published a tender for the development of systems that will provide the country with guaranteed access to space and allow abandoning the RD-180 “non-allied production” .

According to Ivan Moiseev, the US abandonment of the RD-180 is a political decision. Washington used a similar method during the Cold War.

“The Pentagon’s refusal to cooperate with companies that work under a contract with Russia is a consequence of the tense situation between the two states, the result of sanctions. There is a political component. This was already in the days of the USSR, when the United States banned the supply to the Soviet Union of its satellites and any others that have American components. Until 1995, we actually did not do business in space, ”said the source.

  • Employees during the assembly of the rocket engine RD-180
  • RIA News
  • © Sergey Guneev

Undeniable advantage

Currently, several private companies are developing the American version of the rocket engine. For example, Blue Origin, owned by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, is working on the BE-4. The engine is designed for the Vulcan launcher. It is assumed that in the future it will replace the Atlas V, but the launch of a new rocket has not yet been made.

The development is also conducted by SpaceX Ilona Mask. The company committed to launch the AFSPC-52 military satellite in orbit with the help of the Falcon Heavy missile.

In addition, SpaceX creates the Raptor engine, which will be used for the Starship rocket. According to Mask, his company's invention surpassed the RD-180, since the pressure in the combustion chamber of the engine reached 268.9 bar (for the RD-180 - 266.7 bar).

However, as explained by the chief designer of NPO Energomash, Pyotr Lyovochkin, the engines being compared are used for missiles with different fuel systems. Raptor runs on oxygen and methane, and the RD-180 runs on oxygen and kerosene. It’s the same as comparing a diesel and a gas engine, he said.

“Mr. Mask, not being a technical specialist, does not take into account that the RD-180 engine for the Atlas launch vehicle uses a completely different fuel scheme -“ oxygen - kerosene, ”and these are different engine operating parameters,” commented Levochkin.

Meanwhile, Dmitry Rogozin, commenting on the statement of Mask, concluded that the RD-180 has no competitors.

“I want to say that God grant them good luck to create an engine better than ours. Until it works out, Russia is the number one in the world in this part, ”he said.

Military expert Alexei Leonkov recalled that today all American space programs for deep space exploration and launch into geostationary orbits are connected with Russian engines. This proves their advantage over other devices.

“Soon in the US they will launch the more expensive BE-4 or Falcon Heavy. If they were more profitable than Russian engines, then the Americans would have long ago abandoned ours in favor of their developments, ”the expert concluded.