May 23, 2022

ULA: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine won’t impact remaining Atlas 5 missions

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated Feb. 28 with Dmitry Rogozin comments.

File photo of an Atlas 5 rocket on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

United Launch Alliance said Friday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have no impact on the company’s Atlas 5 rocket program, which has 25 missions left to fly with Russian-made main engines before retirement.

The launch provider said it has all the Russian engines it needs before transitioning to a replacement rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, with U.S.-made engines produced by Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s space company.

“As we manage the transition to the Vulcan launch system, all necessary RD-180 engines to execute the Atlas 5 flyout are safely stored in our factory in Decatur, Alabama,” said Jessica Rye, a ULA spokesperson. “We have agreements for technical support and spares, but if that support is not available, we will still be able to safely and successfully fly out our Atlas program.”

The RD-180 engines were built by NPO Energomash of Khimki, Russia, a suburb of Moscow.

An Atlas 5 rocket is scheduled for launch Tuesday from Cape Canaveral with a NOAA weather satellite, one of 25 missions remaining on the Atlas 5 schedule. ULA announced last year that all of the company’s remaining Atlas 5 rockets have been sold to customers.

Assembly and production of Atlas 5 rockets will continue at ULA’s factory in Alabama for the next few years before winding down. ULA is building Vulcan Centaur rockets at the same location.

ULA received its final shipment of RD-180 engines from Russia last year. The RD-180 is a dual-nozzle engine that powers the first stage of each Atlas 5 rocket, generating around 860,000 pounds of thrust at full throttle while guzzling kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants.

A Russian-made RD-180 engine powers an Atlas 5 rocket off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral with NASA’s Lucy asteroid explorer. Credit: United Launch Alliance

ULA says the new Vulcan Centaur will have more lift capability, additional mission flexibility, and will be cheaper to operate than the existing Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rocket families. There are three Delta 4 rockets, which also have all U.S.-made engines, left to fly on ULA’s schedule.

Here’s a breakdown of the remaining Atlas 5 missions:

• Nine commercial missions for Amazon’s Kuiper internet network

• Eight missions for Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule

• Four missions for the U.S. Space Force

• Two missions with weather satellites for NASA and NOAA

• One commercial mission for Viasat

• One commercial mission for SES

Tory Bruno, ULA’s chief executive, tweeted Friday that he is confident the company can fly the remaining Atlas 5 missions even without technical expertise from Russian engineers. ULA also acquired additional RD-180 engines to use as spares.

“I accelerated the delivery of the last RD-180s,” Bruno tweeted, adding that ULA engineers have “lots of experience” with the RD-180 engine.

“I have personal experience in flying other people’s rockets without their support, which informs my confidence,” Bruno tweeted.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 helped trigger a review of the the U.S. space industry’s use of Russian components, expediting ULA’s move away from the RD-180 engine.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency, seemed to confirm Monday that future Atlas 5 missions will launch without technical support from the RD-180’s Russian manufacturer.

“Well, let’s pray for our American friends!” Rogozin tweeted.

Bruno said ULA prefers to have a “retainer” agreement with NPO Energomash to “ask questions or do repairs, if that were to come up.

“But, we have a lot of experience and expertise here, so we can do without if necessary,” Bruno tweeted.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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