Thanks to Russia the U.S. government is no longer under pressure to use satellite launchers developed without government financing. That was going to be a problem because one the usual methods of obtaining these launchers was in danger of being shut down, leaving an insufficient supply of rockets to get all American military satellites into orbit. This all began in July 2014 when Russia announced that despite their aggression against Ukraine and subsequent U.S. sanctions on some Russian officials and firms, Russia was not going to retaliate by halting shipments of RD-180 rocket engines to the United States.
Back in May, after Russia announced it was going to halt RD-180 shipments the U.S. did two things. First it protested to Russia, without much effect, that halting the RD-180 shipments was breach of contract and that breaching this particular contract would do enormous damage to Russian exports in the future because now many countries and firms realize that a contract with a Russian firm can be cancelled by the Russian government for any reason. This was always seen as a risk when doing business with Russia and many Western firms declined to do so or have pulled out of Russia in the last decade because of the growing unreliability of Russia as a business partner. The RD-180 affair got a lot of publicity, all of it bad with regard to future Russian exports of manufactured goods. Europe, which gets about a third of its natural gas from Russia, is already looking for alternate sources and investors are fleeing Russia (and taking their money with them).
Russia admitted that it was going to continue shipping the RD-180s because it needed the money. It was no secret that the profits from the RD-180 sales was keeping several Russian firms (rocket engine design firms and the engine manufacturer) in business. Unofficially Russian trade officials had warned their bosses about the problem with the loss of future export business and this was apparently listened to, but could not be mentioned officially. The corruption in Russia and the problems foreign firms are having with that, and the eternally difficult Russian bureaucracy are all known problems inside Russia but have proved impossible to fix so far. Russia needs the exports, even though the official line is that the sanctions are not hurting.
But there’s another problem with the RD-180s. But halting shipments Russia simply forces the U.S. government to seek out alternate sources. It turns out that such alternate sources are available in the U.S. and someone apparently explained to the Russian leadership that interrupting shipments of the RD-180s risks seeing the American, and other, foreign customers for these engines disappear.
Meanwhile that the RD-180 exports are a sweet deal for the U.S. and Russia. The RD-180 is a 5.5 ton rocket engine that is a 3.56 meters (11.5 feet) tall and 3.15 meter (10.25 foot) diameter marvel of simple, reliable, powerful and cheap rocket motor design. Developed in secret during the 1960s, some American rocket experts (like Charles Vick) suspected during the Cold War that Russia had cheaper, more powerful and reliable rocket engines like this but these claims were dismissed by most American rocket experts. After the Cold War ended in 1991 the U.S. got a close look at Russian rocket engines and realized that Vick was right. One of these engines, the RD-180, was available for export, for about $10 million each. By the end of the 1990s the U.S. had a long-term contract to buy modified (to work in the American Atlas V rocket) RD-180s from Russia and a license to build RD-180s in the U.S. (using some Russian components that would be much more expensive to manufacture in America).
The U.S. currently has two years’ supply of RD-180 engines. The U.S. also has a license to produce the RD-180 in the United States. In order to get production going you first have to develop the Western suppliers for all the components now supplied by Russia would take five years. Best case is that it would cost the U.S. an additional $2.5 billion dollars to set up production and obtain more expensive launch services elsewhere in the meantime. Since the best case rarely happens it is more likely that it would take seven years to get RD-180 production going and cost at least an additional $5 billion to pay for launch alternatives. Many satellite launches would be delayed three years or more. Thus the U.S. is eager to resume buying RD-180s but is also seeking alternate sources.
All this was good news for the new private firms that are developing rockets for launching stuff into orbit. One such firm is SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) and is has been trying to break the current cartel controlling U.S. government satellite launch services. Since 2006 all this business has gone to a government-approved monopoly called the ULA (United Launch Alliance) which is composed of Lockheed Martin (Atlas 5 rocket) and Boeing (Delta 4). These two firms have dominated U.S. space launches for over half a century. Because of the RD-180 the Atlas 5 is more attractive (in terms of performance and price) than the Delta 4. Meanwhile SpaceX expects to have Atlas 5 competitor ready in a few years.
In 2012 SpaceX obtained its first contract to launch U.S. military cargo into space. SpaceX had earlier obtained a NASA contract which included twelve deliveries to the International Space Station (at $134 million each). What makes all this so noteworthy is that SpaceX developed its own launch rockets without any government help. SpaceX also developed the Dragon space vehicle, for delivering personnel and supplies to the International Space Station.
SpaceX has since proved that its rockets work and is pointing out that the SpaceX rockets can do the job cheaper that ULA. Currently ULA gets a billion dollar a year subsidy from the government that SpaceX would not require. SpaceX still has to get all the paperwork and approvals done so that they can handle classified missions. SpaceX does not see this as a problem, it’s simply going to take another year to satisfy all the bureaucrats and regulations.
The Atlas 5 is a 334 ton rocket that can put 29 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. One potential problem here is that Atlas 5 can’t handle all types of satellites or be made available in sufficient numbers to handle all launches. Thus the U.S. also depends on the Delta 4 rocket system which can weigh up to 733 tons and put 22 tons into low orbit and 13 tons into GTO orbit. The Delta 4 uses American made engines.
SpaceX has developed three launchers which it claims could handle all American launch needs and do it cheaper than Atlas 5 and Delta 4. The Falcon 1 was a developmental model, used mainly for testing and was first launched in 2006. Two of its five launches were a success and the model is now retired. The Falcon 9 is a 333 ton launcher that can lift ten tons into orbit and is competitive with the older (government developed) Delta 4 and the Atlas 5 launchers. Falcon 9 first launched in 2010, and entered service in 2012. The Falcon Heavy is a 1,462 ton rocket that can 53 tons into low orbit and 21 tons into GTO orbit. Falcon Heavy is a development of the Falcon 9 and will fly for the first time in 2014.
SpaceX offers lower prices and more flexibility than most government (usually military) developed launchers. As a privately owned company SpaceX has less bureaucracy and is quicker to adapt new technology for launch services. Many existing and potential SpaceX customers see this as the future of space transportation.
While the Delta 4 and Atlas V have a proven record of reliability, SpaceX offers competition and that usually means the development of better and cheaper technology. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have lots of friends in Congress and that may prove to be the deciding factor into keeping government launch services an expensive monopoly.