NASA is working hard to stop relying on Russian rocket engines, as said by Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
This is a result of the new sanctions on Russia announced by the Trump administration on August 8th. The sanctions were imposed due to the alleged use of chemical weapons against Russian ex-intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the UK city of Salisbury in March.
The 2018 US National Defense Authorization Act limits purchases of Russian rocket engines after December 31, 2022. Sergei Ryabukhin, the Russian upper house’s budget committee head, cited by Sputnik News, said that Russia’s may retaliate against the new US sanctions by affecting deliveries of the RD-180 engines to the United States.
“The United States of America is working really hard to not be dependent on the RD-180 engines. NASA is unique from the rest of the federal government in a sense that when relations get rough between countries, when they are not so good, NASA is able to maintain that relationship,” Bridenstine said in an interview with the C-SPAN broadcaster on August 12th.
He also recalled that US astronauts on the International Space Station flew there on a Russian Soyuz carrier rocket. He further emphasized that NASA didn’t want to depend on Russia, however it also wanted to maintain good relations with Moscow.
RT also reported that Roscosmos said that its Director General Dmitry Rogozin could hold talks with his counterpart in Baikonur, Kazakhstan in October. Bridestine also confirmed that he was interested in meeting Rogozin. “I intend to [meet Rogozin] in the near future,” he said. Further commenting “And we are working on how do we maintain this relationship given those [sanctions] constraints and I’m very confident that we’ll be able to work it out.”
Bridestine also expressed his confidence that Boeing, SpaceX and other US companies would eventually produce viable and safe alternatives to the RD-180 engines.
To quicken the process of relying on Russian engines, NASA and Congress have increased funding for commercial efforts which should allow Boeing and SpaceX to begin launching astronauts into space from US soil.
Russia supplies the RD-180 engines to the United States under the 1997 contract. The US space program relies on the Russian-built engines to power the first stage of the Atlas V rocket, used for sending heavy payloads into space.
RT reported that geopolitical tensions and sanctions introduced by the US against Russia has prompted calls by US politicians to consider replacement of the Russian-supplied technology. However, until there is a viable alternative, the US would like to preserve cooperation with Russia.
On July 31st, Igor Arbuzov, the head of Russia’s major rocket engine manufacturer JSC NPO Energomash announced the signing of a contract with the United Launch Alliance on the delivery of six RD-180 rocket engines for Atlas V rockets in 2020.
A report by Space.com as early as July 2014 said that US is too dependent on Russian rocket engines, citing experts. NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot back then said there is no need for alarm, because “Our teams are working together with the Russians very well to continue space station operations.”
In early 2014, Rogizin commented on Twitter after the concerns of US dependence on Russian rocket engines arose that if the US wanted to send its astronauts to space alone, it should use a trampoline.