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Injunction bars ULA from buying Russian engines
Posted: May 1, 2014

The U.S. Court of Federal Appeals has issued a temporary injunction barring United Launch Alliance from purchasing Russian engines and hardware for its venerable Atlas 5 rocket following a complaint by SpaceX alleging such sales violate U.S. sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia's actions in Ukraine.

File photo of an RD-180 engine on the first stage of an Atlas 5 rocket. Credit: NASA/KSC
In a complaint filed Monday, SpaceX also claims a sole-source Air Force contract with ULA for 27 Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, a five-year "block buy" valued at $11 billion, should be reversed and opened to competition.

ULA, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, claims SpaceX's relatively new Falcon 9 rocket was not fully certified for national security missions at the time the contract was awarded last December and that ULA's family of Atlas and Delta boosters represented the only proven rockets available at the time for critical military launches.

By purchasing a large block of rockets at one time, the Air Force will save some $4 billion, ULA says. SpaceX, not surprisingly, disagrees, saying its Falcon 9 rockets would cost taxpayers much less. And the company challenged existing policy that allows the use of Russian engines in a rocket used to launch U.S. spy satellites.

The RD-180 engine, built by NPO Energomash, has powered the first stage of ULA's Atlas 5 rocket for the past two decades. The engines are marketed by RD AMROSS, a partnership between Energomash and U.S. engine builder Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. Their major U.S. customer is United Launch Alliance.

In the complaint filed Monday, SpaceX said "the Russian space and defense industries are led by Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy prime minister of Russia. Mr. Rogozin is on the United States' sanctions list as a result of Russia's annexation of the Crimea.

"In other words," SpaceX alleged, "under the ULA contract, the Air Force is sending millions of dollars directly to an entity controlled by Russia and to an industry led by an individual identified for sanctions."

Rogozin has ridiculed such claims, tweeting that people suggesting he personally profits from such transactions are "morons." In a subsequent tweet after SpaceX filed its complaint, he reportedly said that "after analyzing the sanctions against our space industry I suggest the US delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline."

Rogozin was referring to NASA's use of Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. and allied astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX is competing for a NASA contract to build a new crewed spacecraft to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit as a commercial venture. Two other companies in that competition -- Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. -- plan to use the Atlas 5 to boost their spacecraft into orbit.

The SpaceX complaint suggested ULA was attempting to speed up delivery of RD-180 engines as a result of the recent sanctions, adding that "it is hard to imagine any way in which entrenching reliance on Russian rocket engines while funding the Russian military industrial complex with U.S. tax dollars serves national security interests."

Judge Susan G. Braden granted a temporary injunction Wednesday night barring United Launch Alliance and its subsidiaries "from making any purchases from or payment of money to NPO Energomash or any entity ... that is subject to the control of Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin" until the court gets opinions from the departments of State, Commerce and Treasury that such payments would not violate the sanctions against Rogozin.

United Launch Alliance said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" by the ruling and will work with the Department of Justice to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. The company has said it already has enough RD-180 engines in the United States to support missions planned for the next two years.

"SpaceX's attempt to disrupt a national security launch contract so long after the award ignores the potential implications to our national security and our nation's ability to put Americans on board the International Space Station," ULA said.

The company said NASA and "numerous other companies" routinely -- and lawfully -- conduct business with Energomash and other Russian space entities.

"This opportunistic action by SpaceX appears to be an attempt to circumvent the requirements imposed on those who seek to meet the challenging launch needs of the nation and to avoid having to follow the rules, regulations and standards expected of a company entrusted to support our nation's most sensitive missions," ULA said in its statement.

Boeing, which designed the Delta 4 family of rockets, and Lockheed Martin, designer of the Atlas 5, initially competed for military and civilian launch contracts, but joined forces as part of an Air Force decision to keep both production lines open to ensure access to space for high-priority national security payloads.

Since the company's founding, ULA has launched more than 80 successful missions in a row, including spy satellites, military voice and data relay stations, weather satellites, navigation beacons and NASA science spacecraft, including the Curiosity Mars rover.

SpaceX, founded by internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to launch at least 12 uncrewed cargo ships to the International Space Station using the company's Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket also is used to launch commercial communications satellites.

SpaceX has launched nine Falcon 9 missions, all of them successful, and Musk believes his rockets offer a reliable, lower-cost alternative for military payloads in the Falcon 9's lift capability.

ULA was awarded the block buy contract last December, before SpaceX's upgraded Falcon 9 version 1.1 rocket had met Air Force certification requirements. SpaceX has since completed the flight requirement -- three successful launchings in a row -- and is in the process of working through remaining engineering reviews.

Musk claims Air Force launch vehicle certification is required before a company can be cleared to launch a military payload, but says it is not required to compete for a launch contract.