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For Most Made-in-the-USA Space Station Transport, Russian Technology in Critical Path

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

August 16, 2011

For Most Made-in-the-USA Space Station Transport, Russian Technology in Critical Path

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

As commentators from around the country gnash their teeth at U.S. dependence upon Russia to move cargo and astronauts to the mostly U.S. built/funded International Space Station (ISS), they've missed the bigger boat: With one exception, all the commercial spaceflight offerings currently in the works have Soviet or Russian engines as a key part of the rockets involved. 

SpaceX (News - Alert) is the only company that can claim 100 percent “Made in the USA” rockets. All major parts, including rocket bodies and engines, are manufactured in the United States.   For moving cargo to ISS, the Falcon 9/Dragon combination is currently scheduled for a late November launch followed by the first Dragon docking in early December. NASA needs to formally sign off on the docking, but last week Administrator Charles Bolden sounded confident that it would occur.

Orbital Sciences (News - Alert) Corp., the other company with an ISS commercial cargo contract, has had trouble with its surplus Soviet hardware.   Its Taurus II rocket uses a first stage designed and built by Yuzhnoye Design Bureau of the Ukraine and incorporates two modified NK-33 engines built 40 years ago for a monster Soviet moon rocket.   The NK-33s were bought by Aerojet and modified to become the AJ-26 engines that go into the Taurus II first stage.

Did I mention the engines are 40 years old?

On June 9, an AJ-26 engine being tested for the first flight of the Taurus II leaked kerosene fuel and caught fire, reports Aviation Week. The fire ruined the engine and has Aerojet “evaluating” its stock of 36 engines for corrosion or other flaw, but Orbital believes there are enough good engines available to fulfill Orbital's two COTS demonstration flights and eight ISS resupply missions.

In the longer term, Aerojet has plans to build a factory with Teledyne Brown to build new AJ-26 engines. Aerojet wants to bid on building liquid-fueled engines to incorporate into boosters for NASA SLS heavy lift rocket.

ULA has a lot more faith in its Russian engine and supplier. Built by NPO Energomash, a single RD-180 engine has been in the first stage of the Atlas family since 2000, first with the Atlas III and today with the Atlas V.   While Pratt Whitney Rocketdyne has a license to produce RD-180 engines in its joint sales venture with NPO Energomash in the U.S., the company is content to buy the engines directly from NPO

Since 2002, Atlas V has logged 27 successful launches in a number of different configurations and has been selected by Blue Origin, Boeing (News - Alert), and Sierra Nevada as the rocket to carry their respective manned spacecraft into orbit to provide ISS crew transportation.   Boeing plans to conduct manned test flights of its CST-100 capsule using the Atlas V launch vehicle in 2015.

ULA is more than happy to point out the reliability of the Atlas V, but when it comes to discussing how much the rocket costs or how much of that cost can be allocated to the RD-180, not so much. 

Regardless of the cost, if American astronauts go to orbit on an Atlas V, they aren't leaving the ground without a Russian engine pushing them off the launch pad.

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Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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