WASHINGTON: The House Armed Services Committee is certainly no friend to today’s Russia as ruled by Vladimir Putin, but even they now support the Pentagon’s plans to use 18 Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines.
The HASC approved by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado to the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the United Launch Alliance to use up to 18 of the highly reliable and cheap engines, as the Air Force and Pentagon have pressed for. The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith, also offered an amendment authorizing $100 million to develop a launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure. That was clearly an effort to loosen the restrictions on rocket engine research money favored by HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry and Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the HASC strategic forces subcommittee.
Thornberry and Rogers have sent Air Force leaders a letter saying they want investment only spent on rocket engines and not on launch systems, as the Air Force wants. Rogers has taken a position not far off that of Sen. John McCain, who keeps pressing for development of an American rocket replacement for the RD-180, ignoring the enormous costs that would be incurred in building new engines that would then have to be integrated with the Atlas V. It also ignores the truth that America has been unable so far to duplicate the superb reliability and power of the RD-180s.
According to my colleague Mike Gruss at Space News: “The (NDAA) bill, as drafted, would leave Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine as the only piece of the Air Force’s portfolio of rocket-propulsion partnerships that meets the new criteria. The proposed restrictions would also require any unobligated money from 2015 or 2016 follow the same guidelines.”
The AR1 does use the same propellant of kerosene and liquid oxygen but it won’t see its first launch — presuming everything goes well — until 2020 or later.
The amendments passed last night appear to put the kibosh on those restrictions. Even if the authorizers succeed in placing restrictions on the research, two space experts with whom I spoke today say the appropriators are unlikely to accept the approach supported by Rogers and McCain.
In other space-related news, an amendment by Rep. Jim Bridenstine directs the Secretary of Defense to provide Congress with a briefing regarding hosted payloads. And Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado offered one requiring a joint Pentagon-Director of National Intelligence report on commercial space-based capabilities.