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The head of the US Air Force’s space command says he is “very concerned” about the state of the country’s rocket industry in a sign of American anxiety over its dependence on Russia launch technology.
General William Shelton was speaking to the Space Symposium in Colorado after Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, vowed to stop letting the US use Russia’s RD180 rocket motors for military satellite launches. The motors are used in the Atlas V rocket that the United Launch Alliance uses to lift the US’s most sensitive spy satellites into space.
While there are new, domestic space companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and some US-built rockets that use only US technology, the Atlas V can lift heavier satellites and has a long record of reliability. ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martinand has a monopoly on the US national security launch business.
It could take four to five years for US contractors todevelop a new motor with the same capabilities as the RD180. ULA has stockpiled enough motors to continue launches for two years if Russia makes good on its threat.
“I remain very concerned about the state of our rocket propulsion industrial base,” General Shelton said towards the end of his address.
With the help of the US Congress, the military was examining the possibility of developing a domestically produced rocket engine, he added.
But he went on: “As many of you know, a strong domestic industrial base is key to assured access to space.”
Gen Shelton had previously painted a picture of space operations that had been transformed since the cold war by the number of countries operating in space and by the potential for attacks on satellites.
US’s Russian space dependence highlighted
When a US National Reconnaisance Office satellite lifted off into the sky above Cape Canaveral on April 10, the rocket’s ultimate destination in space and the satellite’s purpose were all kept top secret. But there is a strong possibility that the intelligence satellite will be used to monitor the behaviour of the Russian military, which when the launch took place was massed on Ukraine’s eastern border.
The US was vulnerable, he said, because it relied for critical capabilities on a small number of large, complex satellites that if lost or destroyed by enemy action would severely harm the country’s intelligence-gathering. The military was planning to move to using larger networks of smaller satellites.
“This distributed approach we believe will minimise the impact of losing a single asset,” he said.
The US military might also buy space on commercial satellite launchers for some launches and there were new approaches to reaching space, including the Virgin Galactic system for space tourism.
Gen Shelton was “intrigued” by the possibility of competition for national security launches, he said. SpaceX’s entirely US-built Falcon rocket is working towards being certified for use to launch US national security satellites, as are the vehicles of Orbital Sciences Corporation, another company working in the field.
The general, nevertheless, stressed the importance of being fully competitive in space technology.
“The mainstay of space operations is assured access,” he said.
US vulnerability over the RD180 reflects the country’s decision on both cost and strategic grounds to rein in spending on rocket engine development after the end of the cold war and to embrace Russia’s space industry.
Russia continued to spend on the area and developed engines that required less fuel per pound of thrust than their US equivalents. Any new engine could come from plans that the National Aeronautic and Space Administration is already pursuing for new, manned space craft that will be able to carry astronauts ultimately to Mars.