Clash of Titans

Two senior U.S. senators locked horns over a measure in the recently enacted omnibus spending bill that lifts restrictions on the Russian-made RD-180 engine that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, a national security workhorse. Backed by Senate Appropriations Committee member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the provision supersedes, at least for a year, language in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 that limited ULA, which has a major presence in Alabama, to four RD-180s for upcoming U.S. Air Force launch competitions. That drew the wrath of the NDAA’s principal author, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who in a lengthy floor speech blasted the relief measure as a “triumph of pork barrel parochialism.” As the quotes below suggest, whether or not the issue was one of politics versus principle depends on who you ask.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Credit: DoD/Army Staff SGT. Sean K. Harp

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Credit: DoD/Army Staff SGT. Sean K. Harp

What did ULA do when it didn’t get its way? It manufactured a crisis. Though the Department of Defense is restricted in using these Russian rocket engines, there is no similar restriction on NASA or commercial space launches. So ULA rushed to assign the RD-180s that it had in its inventory to these non-national security launches, despite the fact that there is no restriction on the use of Russian engines for those launches. This artificial crisis has now been seized on by ULA’s Capitol Hill leading sponsors, namely the senior senator from Alabama, Senator Shelby, and the senior Senator from Illinois, Senator Durbin, to overturn the NDAA’s restriction.”

— From a speech on the Senate floor

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). Credit: DoD/Glenn Fawcett

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
Credit: DoD/Glenn Fawcett

I’m the first one to argue that we should not be dependent upon any foreign power for access to space — especially in the national security arena. I have already worked to secure more than $300 million in funding for the development of an American-made rocket engine. However, recklessly restricting the use of the RD-180 in the near-term will undermine both national security and the prospects for real competition in the military launch business. … Sen. John McCain pushed these restrictions in close coordination with SpaceX, which stands much to gain by eliminating competition.”

— From an email to SpaceNews