Oh, no. Russia is mad at us again.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has vowed to punish the U.S. for imposing sanctions over his nation’s invasion of Crimea. After being included on the list of targets for sanctions, Rogozin released rapid-fire statements last month in which he:
- objected to the Pentagon using Russian equipment to launch U.S. military satellites
- promised to block the sale of Russian RD-180 rocket engines to U.S. space launch company United Launch Alliance (ULA)
- threatened to terminate “cooperation” with the United States on the International Space Station — presumably by denying U.S. astronauts rides to the ISS aboard Russian rockets
- mocked America’s too-early termination of its space shuttle program, quipping: “I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline.”
So I guess you could say that relations between the United States and Russia are not particularly strong right now. And with the U.S. lacking a single operating spacecraft certified for manned spaceflight, this poses something of a problem.
But fear not. The U.S. Air Force is searching for a solution.
An end to outsourcing national security
Commenting on the impasse, Air Force Undersecretary Eric Fanning said it’s time for the U.S. to “explore ways to mitigate our reliance on the RD-180.” (That’s the Russian engine that ULA partners Boeing (NYSE: BA ) and Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) use to power the core stage of their Atlas V rocket.) Responding to Rogozin’s threats, the Pentagon set up a committee under retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Howard Mitchell to recommend options to deal with the RD-180 issue. It quickly came up with the obvious one.
We need a new rocket engine.
One made in the U.S. of A.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel agrees. In recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Hagel said, “I don’t think there’s any question” but that the U.S. needs to begin building its own heavy rocket engines.
Why? Because the Pentagon says our dwindling supply of RD-180 rocket engines means that in just 22 months, space launches will become “not supportable.”
How to fix the problem
So how will we ensure America’s continued access to space? Fanning believes developing an alternate engine via a “public-private partnership” between the Air Force and private industry may be the way to go. The good news is that several American companies — publicly traded entities that you can invest in — are already hard at work developing alternatives to the RD-180.
The better news is that you really only need to know three of them.
Alliant Techsystems (NYSE: ATK )
Space-tech specialist Alliant builds the solid-fuel rocket boosters that help lift America’s rockets into space. Alliant’s boosters were used on the space shuttles, and have been chosen to power NASA’s shuttle replacement, the “space launch system,” or SLS. Alliant was also chosen as one of a handful of companies working on ways to improve the affordability, reliability, and performance of our boosters, for use on the SLS as a new “advanced booster.”
NASA expects the improved design to generate “more thrust than any existing U.S. liquid- or solid-fueled boosters,” enabling the launch of up to 143-ton payloads aboard the SLS. The space agency plans to execute the first SLS test flight as early as 2017, sending an unmanned spacecraft into lunar orbit.
Orbital Sciences (NYSE: ORB )
In 2010, NASA named Orbital as one of several space tech companies permitted to compete for development work on a new heavy-lift rocket engine to power the SLS. The company’s biggest rocket engine today is the Antares, used to lift Cygnus unmanned spacecraft to the ISS on resupply missions. Antares is only capable of lifting payloads of 5,000 kilograms, however. That’s barely a quarter of what’s needed to get even an Atlas V launcher into low-earth orbit.
Orbital is due to merge with Alliant later this year, combining two strong players in space tech into one — and potentially accelerating the rocket development efforts of each.
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