Another Blow to American Access to Space

The damage caused by ending the Space Shuttle Program prematurely -- before an alternative man-rated U.S. conveyance system was available – continues to build up. Not only do we not have an American-led way to get humans into space, we are now ending – or cutting short – our capacity to deliver national security assets into deep orbit. We are knowingly allowing a gap to emerge between launch capacity we have now – which depends on the RD-180 Russian-made rocket engine – and an uncertain future time, when we may have our own rocket engine to power heavy-lift rockets. 

Simply put, this gap cannot be allowed to emerge, or we stand a chance of losing reliable and continuous access to space in order to support our most critical national security priorities in space. 

In the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine, Congress and the administration decided that the best way to punish Russia was to levy several layers of sanctions. Fair enough. But in the bargain, that move ended the longstanding relationship that allows America to buy the RD-180, a highly sophisticated rocket engine that powers America’s Atlas V rocket – in fact, the only rocket currently capable of carrying our heaviest payloads into the highest orbits reliably and cost-efficiently.The RD-180, despite being Russian-made, is a remarkable piece of engineering; it is extraordinarily powerful, and over its life in support of U.S. missions, it commands a nearly flawless record of performance.

New language mandating that the RD-180 can no longer be used past 2019, and that an American-produced rocket engine be developed, is in the National Defense Authorization Act. However, key questions raise concern. Would we like to send our heaviest cargoes up with an all-American rocket engine? Certainly. Can we just flip a switch and do so? No, not even close.

In fact, in multiple recent forums and settings, U.S. Air Force leadership has expressed concern regarding the ambitious timeline for new engine development.

We should develop our own engine – we’ve done it before and we can do it again. However, experts who talk about real timelines – for research, development, deployment, certifications, Congressional oversight, production delays, and historic requirements of rocket engine development – tell a hard truth: We will not have any American engine with similar reliability, testing, certification, thrust, and safety for at least ten years. This is the reality of sophisticated defense acquisition and how long big Federal procurement programs – of this magnitude – actually take, and will take in this case. And without a similarly reliable and cost-efficient platform online and able to support heavy launch operations, herein lies the gap.   

What would be the impacts of a heavy-launch gap?  On one hand, absent a cost-efficient platform, heavy-launch missions would be inordinately expensive – possibly even to the point of unfeasibility.  On the other, absent a reliable launch provider with a demonstrated and proven launch vehicle with a performance record like Atlas V, significant missions to upgrade or replace key national security assets in space may be delayed or cancelled. Such delays or cancellations would ultimately impact everything from command, control and communications capability to ballistic missile threat warning and detection to the maintenance of key intelligence priorities generated from satellites. In his appearance before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services in January 2015, Dr. Henry Kissinger – the 56th U.S. Secretary of State and U.S. National Security Advisor – testified that, “The United States has not faced a more diverse and complex array of crises since the end of the Second World War.” With this stark assessment in mind, the next several years – perhaps even the next decade – is definitely not a time to hinder our national security access to space.       

We cannot let the curtain fall on a proven technology that still has a place in our strategic toolbox – even for the good cause of punishing Russia. In doing so, an undesirable denouement may result. We cannot lose access to the RD-180 that powers essential commercial and defense missions into space – until a new American engine is developed and deployed. Moving into the remainder of the legislative calendar, Congress needs to put these concerns above all other interests, think strategically and preserve access to the RD-180 engine while we still can. This new gap would endanger not just our prestige, our national security and our reliable, routine, heavy lift access to space. We must separate passions and imperatives, and plan wisely for an uncertain future. 

Travis Wright is a management consultant, strategic planner and retired military aviator with over 23 years of military service.