Space Force Commander Moves To End U.S. Reliance On Russian Engines

Coburn Palmer

The U.S. depends on Russia to build the engines it needs to lift national security payloads into orbit and to supply the Soyuz crew capsule needed to ferry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

That's not OK with Gen. John Hyten, head of the Air Force Space Command and President Barack Obama's nominee to take charge of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Hyten told the Senate Armed Forces Committee the U.S. needs to move away from dependence on Russia and toward independence in space, according to Space Daily.

"I pledge to continue to work with the Congress to make sure this nation ceases our reliance on the Russian RD-180 as soon as possible and never loses assured access to space."

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. officials worried top Russian scientists would be lured away by rogue states, like North Korea, which are seeking advanced missile technology.

The policy worked well for a number of years and remained largely without controversy with Russia receiving billions of dollars for the sale of the rocket boosters. That was until 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed Crimea from the Ukraine.

The move produced an international uproar and members of Congress began to call for a move away from the Russian built RD-180 engines used in the Atlas V, Delta IV and SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, but there was some pushback.

Using Delta IV rocket boosters instead of the Russian built engines will cost the U.S. military some $1.5 billion annually; money it desperately needs to maintain and upgrade other systems.

"Our nation should not rely on Russia to access space…because it is simply immoral to help subsidize Russia's intervention in Ukraine and line the pockets of Putin's gang of thugs who profit from the sale of Russian rocket engines."
"While I strongly believe that we should not be dependent upon any foreign power for access to space, it is far too risky to ban the RD-180 until we have a domestically-produced engine that has the same capabilities."

Now, there's a race between two teams competing to build a replacement for the Russian built RD-180: the United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin versus Aerojet Rocketdyne. The two teams have until 2019 to build a new rocket engine for use on the Vulcan.

Meanwhile, NASA and its civilian contractors continue work on crew capsules intended to take over for the Soyuz, which the U.S. has depended on to ferry astronauts into space since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

Enter Hyten, the general set to take charge of the U.S. Strategic Command and America is set to move away from dependence on Russia and toward independence in space. Hyten told the Senate Russia and China have been building weapon systems specifically designed to counter U.S. space systems, according to Federal News Radio.

"I believe that it's essential that we go faster in our responses." The commercial sector has been on the verge of something special for a long time, but I think they're about there."

[Image via AP Photo/Maxim Marmur]