WASHINGTON – The United States needs to consider ending its reliance on the Russian-built rocket engines used to launch Pentagon satellites, a top Air Force official said Wednesday.
While the Russian engine has served us well, current uncertainty highlights the need to consider other options for assured access to space, Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, said in remarks prepared for a Senate hearing Wednesday.
Shelton warned that developing a replacement would be a multiyear effort requiring significant congressional support to maintain adequate funding. The Obama administration has said a substitute might cost as much as $4.5 billion and take eight years to complete.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said the U.S. must take action.
We simply cannot rely on the vicissitudes of a foreign supplier in a foreign nation for our national security, he said at the start of the hearing.
The Russian RD-180 engines power Atlas V rockets made by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the U.S. turned to the engines because of their lower cost and good quality, lawmakers said. By buying the technology, the U.S. also hoped to keep it out of enemy the hands, they said.
The engine is the most critical foreign component in terms of cost, schedule, and the technical difficulty of developing an alternative engine source, Yool Kim, a senior engineer at Rand Corp., said in prepared testimony for the joint hearing of the Commerce panel and an Armed Services subcommittee.
Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which has its own U.S.-made rocket engine, sued the Air Force in April to be allowed to compete for a share of the $67.6 billion Pentagon satellite launch market.