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Federal Court Bans ULA from Purchasing RD-180 Engines

By Caleb Henry | May 1, 2014
      ULA EELV RD-180

      An Atlas V launching the ICO G1 commercial satellite at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Photo: ULA

      [Via Satellite 05-01-2014] The United States Court of Federal Claims has restricted the joint BoeingLockheed Martin launch provider United Launch Alliance (ULA) from purchasing RD-180 engines manufactured by Russia’s NPO Energomash. The decision comes after an April 28, 2014 filing by SpaceX stating that the U.S Air Force has entered into an “unlawful contract” by creating a situation that would send money to the sanctioned Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. An executive order issued in March imposed sanctions on business with Russia, and on April 28, 2014 the Department of the Treasury and Office of Foreign Assets Control listed Rogozin as a “blocked person” in response to Russia’s actions in Crimea.

      This court order has severe implications for ULA’s ability to conduct launches both for government and commercial customers. The company currently has stockpiled enough engines to support more than two years of launches using the Atlas 5, but will need to establish a means to continue launching after that point. The court’s preliminary injunction does not extend to purchase orders that were already made prior to its decision.

      “ULA is deeply concerned with this ruling and we will work closely with the Department of Justice to resolve the injunction expeditiously. In the meantime, ULA will continue to demonstrate our commitment to our national security on the launch pad by assuring the safe delivery of the missions we are honored to support,” ULA’s General Council Kevin MacCary said in a statement.

      SpaceX claimed the Air Force has “no lawful justification” to continue its sole source order with ULA for 36 launch cores as part of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. The company requested the court permanently enjoin the Air Force from procuring the launch vehicles. Additionally, SpaceX compared ULA’s engine purchasing situation with its own ability to produce engines domestically.

      “SpaceX far exceeds the engine production of ULA suppliers and is one of the largest — if not the largest — liquid fuel rocket engine manufacturers in the world,” SpaceX said in a statement. “By the end of the year it will have the capability to produce 40 rocket cores and nearly 400 engines annually.”

      ULA is currently the only company certified by the U.S. government to conduct launches as part of the EELV program. SpaceX is in the certification phase and is reportedly close to completing all the necessary paperwork. ULA said that SpaceX’s  move, which threatens to cripple ULA’s launch capability, creates a substantial national security risk.

      “Just like ULA, NASA and numerous other companies lawfully conduct business with the same Russian company, other Russia state-owned industries, and Russian Federation agencies,” said MacCary. “This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation’s most sensitive missions.”

      The U.S. government launches extensively with ULA. Furthermore, the company announced a “refund or reflight” program at SATELLITE 2014, aimed at attracting more commercial business for the Atlas 5 launch vehicle. Congress is currently discussing funding a replacement for the RD-180 in order to have a domestic alternative.