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Spending Bill Lifts RD-180 Ban, Puts ULA Back in Competitive Game

RD-180 test fire

WASHINGTON – A massive U.S. government spending bill, released by lawmakers Dec. 16, effectively ends a ban on the Russian rocket engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket and re-energizes competition for Defense Department launch contracts between ULA and SpaceX.

The new language, included in the omnibus spending bill for 2016, says “that notwithstanding any other provision of law” the Air Force could award a launch contract to any certified company “regardless of the country of origin of the rocket engine that will be used on its launch vehicle, in order to ensure robust competition and continued assured access to space.”

The Russian-built RD-180 engine powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is used to launch a majority of national security satellites. The Atlas 5 is considered the only competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 for nine upcoming military launches.

Congress banned future use of Russian engines for U.S. national security launches in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 as a response to Russia’s 2014 incursion into neighboring Ukraine. Lawmakers, the Air Force and ULA have been debating the specific terms of the ban ever since.

The language in the 2016 spending bill comes about one month after Denver-based ULA said it declined to bid for the right to launch a GPS 3 satellite in 2018, effectively ceding the contract to SpaceX. ULA cited multiple reasons for not bidding, the engine ban among them.

The recently National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 provided limited relief from the ban, giving ULA access to four more engines for upcoming Air Force competitions, this after the company said five previously exempted engines were assigned to nonmilitary missions.

But with appropriations bill still in play, the office of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), indicated it was considering lifting the ban in that legislation.

ULA builds the Atlas 5 in Decatur, Alabama.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a frequent ULA critic, urged his Appropriations Committee colleagues to adhere to the 2016 NDAA, but to no avail.

The 2016 spending bill also provides $227 million to accelerate development of an American replacement for the RD-180. That’s about $143 million more than the White House’s budget request, according to a summary of Defense Department spending in the bill.

The engine development effort has a $220 million budget for 2015, but the Air Force requested only $84 million for 2016.

Congress mandated last year that the Defense Department develop a domestic engine that would be ready to fly by 2019.

Source: Space News

Spending Bill Lifts RD-180 Ban, Puts ULA Back in Competitive Game

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