“Let them fly on broomsticks.” With that phrase, the head of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), Dimitry Rogozin, has announced the halt of rocket engine sales to NASA. It is another of the many punishments the agency is imposing on its counterparts in the rest of the world in response to sanctions on Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.
In fact, the threats began shortly after the bombings, when Rogozin lamented how terrible it would be if the International Space Station de-orbited and fell to Earth. Russian personnel were then withdrawn from the Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana. Later, ties were severed with ESA that could derail the launch of the first European rover to Mars. And if that wasn’t enough, the UK’s chance of getting a new OneWeb satellite into space depends on meeting tough Russian conditions. The rocket engine issue is just one more thing on their long list. But how serious is it?
Perhaps not as bad as it seems. It is true that, at a glance, it puts some of NASA’s upcoming missions in jeopardy. However, some of the U.S. launch service providers are already working on developing their own rocket engines. This would greatly reduce dependence on Russia. Although there is still a long way to go to have sufficient production. But it is also true that reserves remain from previous deals with Roscosmos. The situation is bad for NASA, but perhaps not as bad as we might think.
The RD-180 rocket engine
The rocket engines featured in this new Roscosmos counter-sanction are the RD-180.
They feature a dual combustion chamber and a dual nozzle design, based on an earlier version that was used to launch some Soviet launch vehicles. As fuel they use a combination of liquid oxygen and a refined kerosene, known as RP-1.
They have been used for years to power a multitude of launchers in the United States. Currently, for example, these rocket engines are an essential part of NASA’s Atlas Vs. In fact, the first stage of these vehicles is powered with a single RD-180 engine.
But this is not the first time that the U.S. space agency has had supply outages from Russia. In the previous invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, something similar happened. At that time Rogozin was deputy prime minister of Russia and banned the sale of any Russian space engines to the United States. It was a hard blow for the American country, which from that moment began to devise ways not to depend on Russian infrastructure to this extent. And that down payment may be the one that makes things somewhat easier at the moment.
Alternatives to Russian rockets
ULA (United Launch Alliance), the company behind the development of the Atlas V, has been trying to find alternatives to Russian rocket engines since 2014.
In 2018, for example, it turned to Blue Origin to power its Vulcan reusable rocket. The company founded by Jeff Bezos set to work with the manufacture of BE-4 engines, capable of replacing the RD-180s.
As of today, they are not yet ready for mass use. However, given the available RD-180 stockpiles, they could be completed before they become truly indispensable. All in all, ULA seems to have its back covered. Another rocket supplier, Northrop Grumman, has it a bit tougher, as it is soon to launch several Cygnus rockets, for which it needs the RD-180s now vetoed by Roscosmos. To solve this problem, perhaps they would have to emulate ULA, swap Bezos for Elon Musk and rely on SpaceX engineers to find an alternative in time to avoid delaying their launches.