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Possible Showdown Looms in Congress over RD-180

A ULA Atlas 5 emerges from the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral in preparation for July's launch of GPS 2F-10. Credit: ULA

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is considering adding language to a federal spending bill that would allow full U.S. military access to a controversial Russian-made rocket engine until an alternative becomes available, a spokeswoman for the office said Nov. 19.

The language, if approved, would take the sting out the current ban that threatens to undermine competition in the U.S. national security launch market. United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, powered by the Russian built RD-180 engine, is considered the only viable competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which only recently entered the market.

But Shelby could face stiff resistance in both houses of Congress. Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees negotiated a deal in the defense authorization bill that would give ULA access to four RD-180s for upcoming U.S. Air Force launch competitions. The House wanted a larger number, but the Senate position prevailed in conference.

Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said in July that Air Force leaders, including Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, told him ULA needed 18 to 22 more engines to maintain uninterrupted access to space and ensure competition within the launch industry.

The Atlas 5 is built at ULA’s plant in Decatur, Alabama.

ULA cited the RD-180 engine availability issue as one of the reasons behind its decision not to big against SpaceX in a competition to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018. The Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture says it effectively needs unfettered access to the engine over the next several years to keep it competitive until its next-generation Vulcan rocket comes on line around 2021.

The U.S. Defense Department, like the rest of the government, is currently funded under a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 11. Shelby is eying the follow-on spending bill, which must pass to avoid a government shutdown, as the vehicle for relaxing the RD-180 ban, said Torrie Matuos, a spokeswoman for the senator.

Shelby did not yet have specific language he hoped to introduce, Matous said.

Source: Space News

Possible Showdown Looms in Congress over RD-180

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