Will NASA’s Cone of Silence Extend to Russian Engines?

Late Wednesday, NASA’s still cordial relationship with Russia took an odd turn when NasaWatch reported rumors of an internal email advising NASA personnel to suspend all communications with the Russian government, except where the International Space Station is concerned.  Later in the evening the agency posted the following “official” statement on its Google Plus account, an odd choice in itself.

Statement regarding suspension of some NASA activities with Russian Government representatives:

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.”

As Jeff Foust points out at spacepolitics.com, outside of ISS, there really isn’t a lot going on in the way of joint projects between NASA and the Russian government.  With that in mind, and following the wording of the announcement, it almost appears as though NASA has elected to use the situation to make a final, full court press for Commercial Crew funding. NASA is not in the business of setting policy however, so it will be interesting to see if this one is ever attributed to a specific source.

With most analysts concluding that it is exceedingly unlikely that Russia will leave the Crimea any time soon, if ever, the policy puts NASA is an unusual, and almost untenable position, given the fact that two of three entrants in the Commercial Crew program the measure seems geared to promote, rely on the RD-180 Russian main engine for first stage propulsion in the Atlas V. Separately, the agency issued yet another science mission launch contract for the Atlas V last month.

How can the agency issue new launch contracts, including for astronauts of all things, for a launch system when it cannot place a phone call, or exchange e-mails with the engine manufacturer?  How can NASA assure itself of safety in the event of a problem?

NASA could of course make an exception as it has done with ISS, just as it could claim that NPO Energomash, majority owned by the Russian government, is actually a “private” company.  It could also go through an intermediary, presumably rocket builder ULA, but the optics are horrible, and among other things, the door may have been thrown wide open for a solidly grounded bid protest. How can there be a fair and open competition for Commercial Crew, or science launches, when agency personnel are “embedded” with one engine builder, SpaceX, but restricted from even talking to another, Energomash?  The safety implications alone are serious, and have been present since well before the current crisis began.

It is simply not possible to maintain that NASA, or the Department of Defense for that matter, can have the same level of insight into the RD-180 as is available to it with either the SpaceX Merlin 1-D or the Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-68A.

If there is to be any significance to the restrictions now being put into place, NASA needs to do some quick soul searching regarding the Atlas V.  One possible course of action is to do something it probably should have done some time ago, require ULA to on-ramp all versions of the Delta IV for its National Launch Services II contract, rather than the presumably more profitable Atlas V.  Much as is the case with EELV launches, if there is any single payload which could not fly on a Delta IV rather than an Atlas V, it would be very interesting to hear why, given that interchangeability of boosters was a primary justification for the two vendor EELV program in the first place.

A second course of action, and certainly a more affordable one, would be to take whatever steps necessary to speed up NASA certification of the Falcon 9 for higher risk launches.

As for Commercial Crew,  it should be noted that Boeing has maintained almost from the outset that its CST-100 is “launcher agnostic” and could fly on the SpaceX Falcon 9 if necessary or advantageous.  Based on NASA’s new policy, it may be both.


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