Russian Lawmakers Eye Ban on RD-180 Sales

Atlas V launches Orbital ATK-designed satellites for the U.S. Air Force. (Credit: ULA)

Well, this doesn’t sound very good.

The burgeoning private space industry might find itself caught in the middle of geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia. Russian lawmakers have drafted a law that would ban cooperation between the two countries on building rocket engines, including sales of the crucial RD-180.

The RD-180 powers the Atlas V, the launch system maintained by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint company owned by both Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Earlier this year the company was awarded a $351 million dollar contract by the U.S Air Force for launching satellites.

If the Russians follow through on this, ULA and the U.S. Air Force and NASA will be in quite the pickle.

Hopefully, it doesn’t happen. But, you never know.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    I proudly voted for the only candidate not under federal investigation. I still can’t believe people think Trump’s campaign was organized enough to even think about collusion with the Russians. Hell, he switched campaign chairs at least 3 times. Trump may be a creep and you don’t like the way the election went, but he did win because the other major party candidate was even more slimy and corrupt than he was. Perhaps we should be asking what dirt the Russians have on the Hill-Bill. It’s obvious that someone over there was shopping information before the election.

  • Jeff2Space

    We’ll never see a locally produced RD-180. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 is supposed to be similar, but it’s quite different in execution. RD-180 is two nozzles driven by a single set of turbopumps. AR-1 has a single nozzle, so it will take two complete AR-1 engines to replace a single RD-180. Aerojet Rocketdyne is currently trying to get the US Government to pick up a bigger share of the development costs. They’re also far behind Blue Origin’s BE-4, which is reportedly the favored engine for the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle.

    But, ULA still hasn’t made a final decision on which engine to use in the first stage of Vulcan. Interesting times.

  • Jeff2Space

    I’m an outsider but I suspect the issues had more to do with the metallurgy than engineering. An oxidizer rich turbopump is a very difficult thing to do since the oxidizer rich preburner exhaust really, really wants to oxidize (burn) the metal in the turbopump. In the US it was thought impossible by many propulsion engineers until they got their hands on an actual RD-180 and ran it on a test stand.

  • SamuelRoman13

    Could be. Don’t know if 1 seg. puts out as much noise as 4. Use KSC like they did with Atlas. 1 segment=1 million lbs thrust. More than 2 RD-181. Wt= 400,000lbs. It would be one hot rocket. Horizontal assembly should be ok, since that is how they test fire them. Just change 1st stage. Dia. is about the same. Does not burn as long, but thrust to weight much better. Maybe the new Admin. will think it is a good idea. ATK designed this a long time ago. It is in their ’12 catalog. ATK claim they are fast. 6 mo. maybe.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    They could, I don’t know, develop an engine for their rocket… Sort of like SpaceX, Virgin Orbital, FireFly, Blue Origin, Electron and countless others have done.

  • Jeff2Space

    The large SRBs are “core burners”, so changing the length (by adding or deleting segments) doesn’t change the burn time by very much.

  • Jeff2Space

    True, but they put themselves in that position by using engines that were decades old and of an obsolete design even by Russian standards.

  • passinglurker

    It wouldn’t be flying in two years like they’ve done with antares 200.

    Virgin and firefly have been at this for years now and still haven’t flown despite using smaller engines

    Be-4 is 7 years in the making

    And ofcourse we are all familiar with early spacex’s long meandering path to technical maturity.

    Developing a new engine from scratch is simply a no go orbital’s options were either integrate something off the shelf or outsource its launches to ula, and international launchers till the early 2020’s.

  • SamuelRoman13

    Yep. Just adds about 1 million lbs thrust per segment.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Oh yea, they wouldn’t have been able to launch *all* those missions on Antares…

    Would have been better off to just contract as integrator for the trash can on Atlas V, then built their own vehicle and sort out propulsion as needed.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    BTW, I have it on good authority they really wanted to solid booster and liquid upper-stage (NGLS/OmegA/Corndog light) but didn’t want to budget for liquid upper-stage (totally doable by the way). Antares is a hot mess of a design which turns the rocket equation on its head given the propellant arrangement.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    This isn’t true.

  • passinglurker

    If that was better for their bottom line then that’s what they would have done, but evidently after studying the problem they concluded that there was more money to earn flying the missions on their own rocket over the course of crs1 and crs2. Sorry if this triggers your ocd or something but orbital made the most practical and pragmatic business decision given the outlook and what was available at the time.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Ever heard of penny wise, pound foolish? Although, I guess that doesn’t apply here since they are trying to get the USAF to pony up for their next low flight ramp tramp.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    A rock they never needed to see. They were buying engines built in the early 1970s by drunk Soviets and dusted off after a barn find…WTF did they expect?

  • SamuelRoman13

    Nobody liked what Orbital did except NASA and maybe the State Dept. The last I heard they don’t have a lot of engines in stock. Bruno ought to order one and offer to launch Cygnus to ISS like he did in six months on Atlas. These RSRM, yes R is for reusable, have been in ATK catalog for a long time. Call and order and see if they are bluffing. The P-51 Mustang was done in 6mo. Remember that Troy? No computers, but a whole lot of people. These aero-space companies have worked fast in the past. Yes I know it says concept in the catalog.

  • passinglurker

    Believe what you want I guess

  • windbourne

    Oh, I suspect that ula has decided.

  • passinglurker

    They had to throttle down the rd181 already cause it was too hot for what was stacked on top for that reason I don’t see them using a rsrm. (Though to be sure how low can they throttle the fuel grain again?)

    Really the rd181 might not even be targeted by the ban antares is not a militarily relevant rocket.

  • passinglurker

    I don’t see how their choices with antares is pound foolish it has a very limited projected future there is no point in investing in any radical overhauls, and if it’s cheap enough to fix there would be no point in leaving money on the table flying on a different rocket.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Yet, they are going back to the gubment trough and asking for a boat load of cash to develop NGLS….you are missing the plot here. They could have built NGLS components and flew those for CRS and then scaled up to EELV class

    For example, the DCSS for Delta IV is a stretch of the one used with Delta III. Additionally, they could have gone with a 3 segment derived SRB center core to get around 2 million pounds of thrust at lift-off. Such a solution would have provided CRS capability, plus have some versatility beyond CRS and serve as a foundation for NGLS.

    Yes, Orbital can get away with building near useless one-off point designs (and still be marginally successful) because our sucker government keeps buying stupid single application rockets from them. That entire process is obscene and the lack of any interest at Orbital to broaden the market for their vehicles has not gone unnoticed. If Orbital wants to pay for the development themselves they can do stupid stuff all they want, but to spend money on a new vehicles for 6 flights is stupid (Whether that’s Antares, OmegA or SLS for that matter)

  • passinglurker

    There is no guarantee they’ll land the eelv contract so of course they’d still rengine and fly antares if it could be done cheap enough. Antares was cheap to develop and cheap to maintain even if flights are pricy due to low launch rate, but either way they’ve recouped thier expense so now every antares flight is a little more money in the bank they aren’t gonna just walk away from that to drum up something else from scratch between 2014 and 2016

  • Michael Halpern

    Nk-33s weren’t actually the cause of the anteres RUD, iirc, and for first stage engines in preformance (primarily TWR) when talking about liquid non hypergolic first stage engines they were second only to M1-D

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    You recall wrong. LOX turbopump is part of the engine. And it doesn’t matter what the TWR is if the engine is a time bomb.

    “Orbital Sciences formed an anomaly investigation board to investigate the cause of the incident. They traced it to a failure of the first stage LOX turbopump, but could not find a specific cause.”

    The LOX pump is known to have weaknesses in design making mfg tolerances critical or complete failure will ensure. This was reported in the review board report as well.

  • Michael Halpern

    This however would only set us back 2-4 years, we have 2 active rocket families that can do anything Atlas V can that don’t use Russian engines 1 is in the process of being partially retired but if need be that can change and we have 4 others similarly capable or better rocket families in development across 4 “major” LSPs, that isn’t factoring in small launchers, or small launch companies that are currently more or less small rocket engine design groups. While at the same time they would be doing serious lasting damage to their own space industry

  • Michael Halpern

    Also regardless of cost, priority 1 in the COTS descendants is redundancy and making sure that we always have a way to get in this case cargo to iss, DC’s primary vehicle at time of crs 1 was Atlas V, they needed a dissimilar vehicle that wasn’t also being used for cargo

  • Michael Halpern

    As Raptor is about the same size, they could make the engines for 3 bfr and 9 bfs in a year and accounting for equipment set up time, comfortably be able to produce an additional 100 engines Merlin or Raptor in the same year. Obviously you also have to account for replacing engines and engine maintenance, however that production rate also gives them comfortable capability to upgrade the engines somewhat frequently until they start doing P2P,
    With Merlin refurbishment will likely include replacement engine parts after 10 flights maybe they’ll just replace an engine in some cases and have it go get refurbished
    Now let’s say they completely change production over to just Raptor, with the increased complexity let’s say they can make around 275 engines a year, with everything they plan to do with the 31:7 BFR/BFS system, including P2P and Mars, allowing for engine longevity improvements over time, it is probably reasonable to assume that they will need an average between 200 and 225 engines a year if the system is as successful as they hope, eventually dropping down but if they maintain their ethos by that time they may start to introduce the 41 engine first stage version described in 2016

  • ThomasLMatula

    But that was when they didn’t have the handicap of computers and CAD to do things with. You had to really think, visualize, when you used slide rules and a drafting table, to see it “work” in your mind first before drawing it. Yes, I used both when I started college, the professor didn’t allow calculators for assignments.

    Plus engineers were much more hands on, bending metal and doing trial and error testing to get things to work. And things were built with larger safety margins. Look at how rugged and strong the B707 was.

    It wasn’t just the Mustang. The P-80 was also built with lightening speed in a few months from idea to first flight.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And when the BFR is flying it will be just a matter of loading, like loading cargo on a jet.

    You could even have flight ready packages of sensors ready. Load, release, pickup and return.

    It’s a different world when you just open a door to release your spacecraft. Test it. Then come back in a day or so to pick it up to return to Earth. No solar panels (just batteries), sensors you know work from earlier flights, unpredictable orbits, etc. You could even release a couple dozen, a swarm, that will see everything from LEO.

  • Jeff2Space

    Yeah, Orbital ATK wanted newer model Chevy Impalas, but couldn’t afford it. So they settled for the four plus decades old barn find Chevy Impalas. Even after tearing them all down and rebuilding them, they still wasn’t as reliable as a new one. Shocking that.