United Launch Alliance has ordered an unspecified number of Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines for stopgap use in its Atlas V rockets.
The Centennial, Colo.-based company, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, said the Russian engines are needed to power rockets carrying commercial payloads while ULA’s next-gen rocket is being developed.
In a Dec. 23 statement, ULA said it remains committed to transitioning from the Atlas V to the new Vulcan launch system, which will use the BE-4 engine from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin or possibly the AR-1 from rocket-engine maker Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The BE-4 has been chosen as the engine to be used in the Vulcan, and the AR-1 is being developed as a backup.
In the meantime, the Russian-made RD-180 will be integrated into ULA’s current fleet of Atlas rockets.
“While ULA strongly believes now is the right time to move to an American engine solution for the future, it is also critical to ensure a smooth transition to that engine and to preserve healthy competition in the launch industry,” ULA said. “This bridge contract will allow ULA to provide the reliable, affordable launch services our civil and commercial customers depend on from us while the new, American engine is being developed.”
Congress has been pushing for ULA and other space companies to move toward use of U.S.-made rocket engines, though it recently relaxed an outright ban on use of such engines through at least October.
Earlier this month, Orbital ATK used one of ULA’s Atlas V rockets to power a Cygnus spacecraft on a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station.