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Ukraine crisis hits US space industry

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the space industries of Russia, Ukraine, and the US have become increasingly integrated and codependent.

In February, when Russian troops moved into the Crimea peninsula to support pro-Russian nationalists, the main European and US response was to impose trade and financial sanctions on individuals and companies closely connected to the Crimea-separatist movement or to the Russian government.

But the move generated an unanticipated result: a major (if short-term) shock to the billion-dollar space industry. US-built satellites and components are now denied export licenses for launch in Russia, NASA has suspended all non-international space station (ISS) contact with Russia, and the long-term supply of rocket engines to two major US launch companies is suddenly at risk.

Antares takes off


“Over the past 20 years the US and Russian/Ukrainian space launch vehicle industries have become steadily more integrated,” says Jonathan McDowell, a launch analyst and astrophysicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, relies on RD-180 Russian engines for its Atlas V heavy-lift vehicle. The Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares medium-lift launcher (shown here), which provides cargo supplies to International Space Station (ISS), uses a similar Russian engine that is no longer made. Moreover, the lower stage of Antares is built in the politically unstable eastern Ukraine.

At least five commercial and research satellites and one Canadian military satellite (M3MSat) has had its launch from Kazakhstan scrubbed due to the US State Department refusing to grant export licenses under the new Russian sanctions. More cancellations are expected. “There will be some launch delays while the US and European [manufacturers] ramp up to cover the shortfall,” says McDowell. Ironically, the short-term effect on the Russian space industry will be minimal, since many launches were paid in advance.

A new US industry?

SpaceX, which supplies ISS with its Falcon 9 launcher, doesn’t use Russian engines. But as of early May, the company was using sanctions to sue ULA and the Department of Defense in order to break a recently signed multibillion dollar no-bid contract to launch 37 military and intelligence satellites.

SpaceX believes they could win some of the launches in a fair competition with ULA. “The Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing ‘assured access to space’ for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission,” said SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in testimony to Congress.

Under a court injunction passed last week, ULA and the US Air Force are prohibited from making deals with their Russian engine supplier (Update: On 8 May an appeal on the decision led to removal of the injunction for now). ULA has enough engines in stock for the next 30 months, and has another 11 on order, which could supply flights up until 2017.

Concern over the US dependence on Russian engines has reached Congress. The 29 April draft of the 2015 defense authorization bill by the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee has $220 million set aside for the development of a US engine to replace the RD-180. The project, which has already received some support in the Senate, is expected to cost $1.2 billion by the time it is complete.

Orbital Sciences is also seeking new engines: In a conference call in early April with investors, CEO David W. Thompson said that their engine supply was sufficient for the next three years but not for any subsequent missions or new customers. Thompson stated that the company was looking at three suppliers for its engines, two Russian and one US. “There is some additional product R&D that would be required over the next couple of years if we switch over to one of those new approaches, but it’s fairly modest,” said Thompson. “Certainly nothing of the magnitude of the original development costs.”

The instability in Ukraine has also led Orbital Sciences to evaluate an alternative supplier for its first stage, despite protests from Ukrainian manufacturer Yuzhnoye that there will be no production interruptions from their factory. Currently, the company has three first-stage structures at its US facilities and another two set to ship soon. And on 29 April, Orbital Sciences announced it was merging with ATK, which manufactures solid-fuel motors for the second stage of Antares.

Thompson said that the main attraction of the deal was bringing more production in-house, and that ATK has a promising replacement for the first-stage engine. A final decision over which engine goes in the first stage will shortly be made next month, with first flight in 2017.

McDowell summarized the situation: “The main practical effect of this [Ukraine] crisis will be to subsidize development of new US rocket engines and to expand the US and European launch market's capacity.”

Note: This article was updated 12 May to reflect the 8 May overturn of the court injunction against ULA and the Defense department. 

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