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The Air Force has continued to use the Russian RD-180 over U.S. competitors but says it is exploring alternatives.

“We are evaluating options to end the use of Russian engines, and we are working with the executive office of the president and our interagency partners to determine future actions to take,” Air Force Maj. Eric D. Badger told The Washington Times. “This includes looking at longer-term options to develop additional U.S.-built high-performance engines, as well as near-term risk mitigation efforts.”

Maj. Badger said the Air Force believes it has enough RD-180 engines to meet launch needs through spring 2016. Last month, it issued a request to industry to “help determine the best way to ensure that future launch requirements can be met by reliable, commercially-viable sources of production.”

American dependence on Russian rocket engines can be traced back to the 1990s when the newborn Russian Federation teamed with the U.S. to launch components for the International Space Station.

The Air Force needed rocket engines. When one of its contractors, Aerojet, heard rumors that the Russians may have leftover engines from the extinct Soviet moon program, U.S. officials traveled to Russia to investigate.

After inspecting the engines, the Americans were in awe. The Soviets had achieved something as early as the 1970s that they thought possible only in science fiction: rocket engines that recycled excess fuel exhausted from its pre-burners back into its combustion chamber.

This process, known as “oxygen rich closed cycle technology,” gave the Russian engines additional thrust while conserving fuel. Aerojet’s discovery sprung new business opportunities between Russia and U.S. defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin.

At the behest of U.S. officials six years later, Lockheed and Boeing merged their Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program into a joint venture known as United Launch Alliance, which has a virtual monopoly on the business.

But that could change soon.

A 2012 directive from the Defense Department ordered the Air Force to aggressively open the program to competition. The crisis in Ukraine has further heightened concern.

Even the United Launch Alliance concedes that it may be time to move on from the Russian-made rocket engine.

“While the RD-180 has been a remarkable success, we believe now is the right time to invest in a domestic engine, which is why we announced earlier this year that we have begun feasibility studies with multiple companies to build a new engine in the next five years,” spokeswoman Jessica Rye said.

United Launch Alliance’s lead competitor, Space Exploration Technologies, says its Falcon 9 is just as effective as RD-180-powered rockets and can be produced quicker at a lower cost. The satellite-launching rocket’s Merlin engine is powered by liquid hydrocarbon.

SpaceX did not hesitate to take advantage of the 2012 Pentagon directive to open competition to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. Although SpaceX was qualified to compete, the government closed the bidding before the Air Force granted official certification.

In April, SpaceX filed a bid protest in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims challenging the United Launch Alliance monopoly over launching national security satellites.

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