It is with a terrible sense of deja vu that I find myself again warning American lawmakers about our reliance on Russian rocket engines to loft military satellites. For more than a decade, America’s workhorse rocket, the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V, has been powered with RD-180 engines imported from Russia. While the recklessness of this situation is obvious and Congress previously acted to end it, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama appears determined to maintain our dependence on this ill-conceived partnership.
In 2013, I prepared a report for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that explicitly warned that our “engine dependency on Russia poses a potential risk of a major supply chain interruption.” A few months later, in May 2014, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minster Dmitry Rogozin responded to Obama administration sanctions over the Ukraine crisis with a threat to halt RD-180 shipments. Mr. Rogozin then taunted America’s astronauts over their dependence on Soyuz crew flights by tweeting, “After reviewing sanctions, [I] suggest [the] United States deliver their astronauts to the ISS [International Space Station] using a trampoline.” In October of that year, Retired Air Force Gen. David A. Deptula wrote in The Wall Street Journal that, “the dependence of U.S. military and intelligence capabilities on Russian equipment is not prudent” and that “the RD-180 is helping to finance an increasingly bellicose Russian government.”
Congress responded appropriately by restricting the use of Russian engines in the Fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Doing so encouraged the Air Force to approve the American made Falcon 9 rocket. That was good news for the Falcon’s manufacturer, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and even better news for the American taxpayer; since Falcon launches run about 75 percent lower than the venerable Atlas. In the long run a competitive market will even be a boon for ULA’s owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
When I visited United Launch Alliance several years ago, I observed an extremely competent organization dedicated to reliably doing the same thing, over and over. That’s a mission the old ULA was immensely good at, as long as cost was no object, and with the Department of Defense as their anchor customer cost was never an object. However, continuing to occasionally place things into orbit at phenomenally high-prices while funding a geopolitical adversary just isn’t a good plan for America in space.
Stuart Witt, the former CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port and a leader in commercial space sees a bolder future for America in space. In a recent conversation he remarked to me that, “In the last two months, we’ve seen what entrepreneurial American companies can accomplish when it comes to launching and landing rockets and that should be consistently supported by the U.S. government.” He was alluding to recent demonstrations of rocket reusability by SpaceX and Blue Origin. Commercialization of this process would further lower launch costs by an order of magnitude, fueling a new tech boom in space. Mr. Witt concluded asking, “What kind of legislators would send our hard earned dollars to Vladimir Putin when they could be investing in American innovation?”
For years, United Launch Alliance dismissed such reusable rockets as science fiction and said there was no need to plan for future growth in launch services because there would be no demand. However, last year’s sudden shove into a competitive market provoked a cascade of positive changes in that moribund firm. Among these were: the appointment of an energetic new CEO, Tory Bruno; the flattening of its bloated management structure and the establishment of a partnership with Jeff Bezos (of Amazon.com) Blue Origin, to develop a reusable and recoverable domestic rocket engine. The CEOs at Boeing and Lockheed Martin should send flowers to SpaceX President, Gwynne Shotwell for increasing the value of their joint venture. Competitive pressure from the efficient operation she runs for Mr. Musk have driven ULA toward innovation and cost efficiency, value creating principles it eschewed under the old military-industrial complex monopoly.
Consequently, many of us were shocked when Republican Sen. Richard Shelby snuck an amendment into the year-end omnibus spending bill directing the Air Force to resume the purchase of Russian engines. The senator from Alabama then had the audacity to vote against that bill and let others pass his gift to the Putin regime. While Mr. Shelby has always delivered the pork to rocket assembly facilities in his home state; his priorities show contempt for American entrepreneurship, American innovation and our national security. Sen. John McCain and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy are introducing new legislation to undo this travesty and their effort deserves the support of every representative and senator who values America’s future.
• Greg Autry is a professor of entrepreneurial studies at the University of Southern California. He is co-author of “An Analysis of U.S. National Competitive Advantage in Human Orbital Spaceflight Markets.”