22 February 2014, 11:37

US considers launching production of Russian rocket engines

US considers launching production of Russian rocket engines

The US Air Force is studying the possibility of launching the licensed production of Russian RD-180 rocket engines in the United States. According to the Space News weekly, the US will begin assessing the licensed production of such engines in the next few weeks.

Life for the Energomash Corporation

The Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine is one of the few high-tech Russian products that are in demand in the United States. The engines are manufactured by the Energomash Russian power engineering corporation. In the United States, the RD Amross joint venture adapts the engines for use in the heavy Atlas-V launch systems.

RD-180 is one half of the RD-170 four-nozzle engine, which was designed for the first stage of the Energiaheavy-lift expandable launch system decades ago.

In 1996, the RD-180 project won the tender for developing and delivering the first stage engine for an updated PH Atlas rocket, manufactured by the US Lockheed Martin Corporation. The development of the engine, based on the series-produced RD-170/171, helped Energomash survive the hardest years for Russian rocket-building companies, - from the mid-1990s to the mid-zeros. An agreement was signed in 1997 on the delivery to the United States of 101 RD-180 engines until the end of 2018. By late last year, Energomash had supplied to the US more than 70 rocket engines for 10 million dollars each, which accounted for a sizeable part of the corporation’s revenues, - more than a third, according to some estimates. Given that the supply of engines to the home market yielded hardly any profit at the time, it is safe to claim that the RD-180 programme kept the corporation out of bankruptcy.

Political complications

The agreement with the United States has been performed by 75%, however, the US is not about to stop using its Atlas rockets, which will call for extending the agreement. But Russia considered the cessation of deliveries of RD-180 engines to the United States in summer 2013 since the US has been using its Atlas-V launch systems to place defence-related devices into orbit. Although no decision was made to that end, the very fact that Russia considered the stopping of supplies prompted the US to overhaul its space launch programme. According to one option, Washington could launch the series licensed production of RD-180 in the United States. But the option obviously suffers from a couple of flaws, namely the cost of the engine is estimated to grow by approximately 50% and, secondly, a licensed agreement per se and the supply of key engine components from Russia call for trust-based relations between the two countries.

The full-cycle production of RD-180 in the United States would prove a guarantee against any risks, of course, but Russia is hardly prepared to accept that and, besides, the expenditures will be comparable to the spending on the designing of a new engine.

But nor will Russia stand to gain by ending the deliveries of the RD-180 engine to the US, since Washington will find some other engine to replace this one sooner than Energomash will be able to raise funds to survive. The Russian space programme could keep Energomash afloat only by increasing the annual number of space launches to six or seven despite the fact that some 30 rockets blast off from Russian space centres every year. But the situation could improve due to the recently launched reform of the space industry, whereby Russia is due to launch a lot more rockets in the interests of Russian customers, both civilian and military.

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