Wednesday, August 28, 2013


An image of the RD-180 engines as displayed on the Russia Today web site. The caption: “A RD-180 rocket engine used in the first stages of American rockets Atlas-3 and Atlas-5 is displayed at the Glushko Energomash Research and Production Association, Khimki. (RIA Novosti / Sergey Pyatakov).”

When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I had delusions of joining the Foreign Service upon graduation.

My specific interest was Soviet foreign policy. I took two years of Russian language, an entire year of Russian history and every Russian-related foreign policy course my university offered.

Our resident Soviet foreign policy and history experts practiced Kremlinology, the fine art of divining the intrigues within the Soviet government. The Kremlin itself is an ancient Russian fortress that over the decades became the heart of Soviet political power. I remember one professor had on his office door an organization chart depicting officials within the Communist Party and Soviet government. When one disappeared from power, he'd put a big “X” through the man's portrait.

Key to Kremlinology was Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. (In Russian, pravda means “truth.”) Kremlinologists would parse the words in articles, attempting to read some deeper intent or message.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Pravda along with it. Greek investors bought the paper, but after years of intrigue it is once again owned by the Russian Communist Party.

You can read Pravda online at There is an English-language version available on the home page.

The Communist Party is no longer in power, therefore Pravda is no longer a semi-official mouthpiece for the Russian government.

That role now appears to lie with RIA Novosti, which also has roots in Soviet history.

Novosti (Russian for “news”) was formed in 1961 as an alliance of nominally public Soviet news-gathering agencies. Think of it as an alliance of the Soviet equivalents of the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, etc.

RIA (Russian Information Agency) Novosti was formed in 1991 after the Soviet Union fell, an organ within the Press and Information Ministry of the new Russian Federation. Today it has its own television and radio stations, as well as the Russia Today web site at RIA Novosti receives government funding but claims to be independent of government policy.

Which leads us to an article that appeared yesterday on the Russia Today site titled, “Russian Rocket Engine Export Ban Could Halt U.S. Space Program.”

Russia’s Security Council is reportedly considering a ban on supplying the US with powerful RD-180 rocket engines for military communications satellites as Russia focuses on building its own new space launch center, Vostochny, in the Far East.

A ban on the rockets supply to the US heavy booster, Atlas V, which delivers weighty military communications satellites and deep space exploration vehicles into orbit, could impact NASA’s space programs — not just military satellite launches.

An unnamed representative of Russia’s Federal Space Agency told the Izvestia newspaper that the Security Council is reconsidering the role of Russia’s space industry in the American space exploration program, particularly the 2012 contract to deliver the US heavy-duty RD-180 rocket engines.

Previously, Moscow has not objected to the fact that America’s Atlas V boosters, rigged with Russian rocket engines, deliver advanced space armament systems into orbit. If a ban were to be put in place, however, engine delivery to the US would probably stop altogether, beginning in 2015.

Deeper in the article is a quote from Ivan Moiseyev, scientific head of the Space Policy Institute. “In my opinion, stopping the export of rocket engines to the US is stupid, as we would suffer financial and reputational losses. The US would not suffer much and would definitely continue with military space launches, while Russia would have to stop production of the RD-180, because no one else needs the RD-180 engine.”

The story has found some traction in the Twitterverse and space advocate web sites, speculating on the impacts from such a shutdown.

Allow me to indulge in my own amateur Kremlinology.

As Mr. Moiseyev noted, it would be глупый (stupid). The Russian space industry is in sad enough shape now without losing a major customer.

The relationship between the United States and Russia has chilled in recent months. My guess is this article reflects the Russian government sending a message to protest pending American intervention in Syria. The Assad regime has long been Russia's closest ally in the Middle East. A BBC News article quotes a tweet by a Russian deputy prime minister alleging that “the West is playing with the Islamic world like a monkey with a grenade.”

Russia's options, however, are limited. The U.S. and other Western powers know that Russia would exercise a veto at the United Nations Security Council to prevent any global condemnation. If the U.S. and its allies launch missile strikes as anticipated, there's little Russia can do other than perhaps expel the U.S. ambassador from Moscow.

A September 2010 Russia Today report on RD-180 engines being shipped to the United States. Click the arrow to watch on YouTube.

But there's another subtext with the RD-180 that deserves mention.

The rights to the RD-180 engine were acquired by General Dynamics (which was later purchased by Lockheed Martin) in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union fell, when the Russian economy was in tatters and Western capitalists swooped in to buy up assets. Pratt & Whitney would produce the engines, through a joint venture with the Russian company NPO Energomash. The limited liability company is called RD AMROSS. It was intended that one day the RD-180s would be built in the United States, but that never transpired. (My guess is it's cheaper for the capitalists to build them with the Russian labor pool.)

Orbital Sciences wants to buy the RD-180 engines for use on the Antares. That booster will launch Orbital's Cygnus commercial cargo vehicle next month from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Virginia.

The Antares' engines are descended from another Soviet-era engine called the NK-33. Once intended for the N-1 moon rocket, they were produced then warehoused for decades. Thirty years later, they were sold to Aerojet General, which modified and renamed them AJ-26.

After four decades, the AJ-26s showed some corrosion, so they have undergone extensive testing, but NASA has made it clear they want another engine on future flights. Orbital is therefore interested in using the RD-180s.

United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, holds exclusive rights to the RD-180 in the United States. In June, Orbital sued ULA, claiming the partnership is in violation of anti-trust laws by monopolizing the domestic launch market.

That same month, Pratt & Whitney was acquired by Aerojet's parent company to form Aerojet Rocketdyne, pushing Orbital further into its corner.

The Boeing Delta IV uses the Rocketdyne RS-68 as its first stage engine. That's now owned by the newly formed Aerojet Rocketdyne merger. So no love there for Orbital.

The mergers have created quite the nice monopolistic market for the RD-180. Which might be why the Russian government thinks it somehow threatens the U.S. launch market by shutting down RD-180 production.

But they've overlooked one company — SpaceX.

Would SpaceX be willing to sell Merlin engines to its commercial cargo competitor?

In any case, it proves the wisdom of Elon Musk's decision years ago to internalize production of critical Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy parts, including the engines.

SpaceX is already bringing back to the United States commercial satellite launches that fled overseas years ago because the ULA monopoly drove up the price. One of those overseas competitors is Russia.

If Russia did manage somehow to adversely impact ULA operations, it would only drive more business to SpaceX.

As Mr. Moiseyev said ... глупый.

So enjoy the saber-rattling. But don't expect it to happen.

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