SpaceX V. ULA Battle Moves to the Senate

At Issue: The RD-180

According to a Reuters story the running battle between SpaceX and United Launch Alliance over military launches and Russian hardware took a new turn yesterday when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R, Arizona) flatly rejected a request by defense officials to allow a broader interpretation of restrictions on the import of Russian built RD-180 rocket engines.

The RD-180 engines, which are used to power ULA’s Atlas-V booster, became the center of a political firestorm last year as U.S. policymakers sought to punish Russia for its seizure of the Crimea and fostering of a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. After more than a decade of overlooking dependence on Russia for the U.S. Defense Department’s “Assured Access to Space” policy, which in theory calls for two independent booster families,  policy makers were willing to cut the cord, and introduced legislation banning further imports of the RD-180 as part of the Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

As is often the case however, different interests read the legislation different ways, and what is currently being contested is whether the law bans the import of all engines except those paid for at the time Russia annexed the Crimea, or more loosely, would allow the import of engines which were on order, but not paid for at the time. McCain’s rejection is clearly a setback, but it may be a temporary one. Ultimately whatever the Senate decides will have to be reconciled with House legislation, which is more friendly to the ULA position.

At the same time United Launch Alliance is pleading its case in the halls of Congress, the Air Force is rapidly approaching a June deadline for finally certifying SpaceX as eligible to compete for national security launches. Last week the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issued a statement saying that working with SpaceX to modify the existing Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), it would now be possible to complete certification even if there were open items still to be resolved, provided there was a path for resolution.

In another sign that SpaceX is finally about to break through a barrier it has struggled against since 2005, on Tuesday the Air Force served notice that it is issuing an early integration studies contract to SpaceX for the Falcon 9 for what is widely believed to be the launch of a GPS-III satellite.

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