Sep 022013


Russian rocket engine export ban could halt US space program

The claim is made that Russia’s Security Council is considering a ban on selling RD-180’s to the US. This would kill the Atlas V, since the US does not have a second source for the engine. Back in the 1990’s there were plans to produce the RD-180 in the US, but the decision was made to simply buy them from Russia.

If this is true and comes to pass, it will be yet another in a long, dreary line of events that point out why international ventures between nations – in particular ventures where each nation produces something vital that the other nation does not – that really don’t like each other is a fundamentally bad idea. It will also point out the importance of having in-house capabilities, such as designing and building rocket engines.

Boeing, I imagine, won’t be too upset by this, as the Delta IV will be happy to pick up the slack from Atlas V. However, that will put US space launch in a bit of a bind, as we’d be restricted to the single heavy launcher. At least unless and until the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy becomes available.

 Posted by at 6:05 am
  • Anonymous

    F-1. Some group fired the gas generator and turbopump assembly recently, so there is hope.

    • Anonymous

      Problem is that the F-1 was a lower performance engine than the RD-170/-180. Lower chamber pressure, notably lower Isp.

      • Anonymous

        F-1 design started in 1955 and first full-scale firing was in 1959. RD-170 design dates to 1973. Give Rocketdyne those 14 to 18 years and I’ll bet that the RD-170 would no longer hold the liquid-fueled engine thrust record.

        • Anonymous

          Not even that long. The M-1 would have surpassed it at ~1.8 million lbs.

  • mt noise

    If I recall, part of the deal Lock-Mart had with the Air Force for the EELV contract was that they would have domestic production of the RD-180. Guess everybody forgot about that clause….

  • Jim R.

    The perils of dealing with our good buddies, the Russians. Some people never learn.

  • Paper Kosmonaut

    Back in the fourties the Russkies could completely reverse engineer a Tu-4 out of a B-29 that made an emergency landing in the USSR. Then just why can’t you Americanos make a perfectly reverse engineered RD-180? It really can’t be that hard. Or am I terribly wrong?

    • Anonymous

      Two things:
      1: Materials are a lot more complex now than with the B-29. The result is that you might know what something is made of and what it’s shaped like, but you’d have no idea how it was actually made. A chunk of metal, even with a horribly complex shape, should be replicatable. But imagine a component made of composite materials… you could well have *no* idea how to actually make it. I’ve personally been involved with trasnfering production programs from one company to another, and even with not only parts and blueprint, but also manufacturing directions, there were still problems, some of them un-surpassable until phone calls were made to individuals who just happened to have some bit of arcane knowledge that suddenly allows the unmanufacturable to be manufactured.

      2: It’d be illegal. Doing so with the B-29 was illegal, but it’s not like Stalin gave a crap. If Aerojet reverse engineered the RD-180 and started cranking them out, the Russians could create all kinds of legal headaches for Aerojet… and for anyone who worked with/for them.

      • Paper Kosmonaut

        Yeah, I am aware of that. But I actually was just thinking of why the Americans are apparently unable to make a rocket engine as good as the RD-180. Where has the technical expertise gone? I always used to admire the technical skills of the U.S. maybe a little delicate (especially compared to the Russian way of engineering) but very well made and functional. It seems nowadays the whole U.S. space industry is just deteriorating. An engine like the F-1 was developed within an unbelievable short time span compared to nowadays. (Okay, maybe it also happened because there was lots more funding in the early sixties) but I wonder where they are. The “SCE to AUX” people. the “We got to try LOR” people.

        Oh shoot, I start to rant. Not what I meant to do. Sorry.

        I just can’t help feeling a bit sad about how a great space faring pioneering nation suddenly is dependent on other countries and hasn’t thought of a timely replacement for their ageing shuttle so they could just keep on flying.

        • Anonymous

          Short form: the “Great Society.” In the 1960’s the US government traded advancements in space for massive social welfare spending.

          Fortunately, private enterprise by the likes of SpaceX might return expertise to the US.

          • Paper Kosmonaut

            Wow. Thanks Scott. I thought I was quite well informed about recent U.S. history. But I actually didn’t know this “Great Society” story apart from that is caused those sudden massive budget cuts NASA suffered in the later sixties. Thanks for enlightening me.

            And yes, I also think SpaceX is doing very well and showing an absolute intelligent approach to spaceflight and technical solutions to accomplish things. There one can actually find back that atmosphere NASA used to have in the early years, before it became clogged with too much bureaucracy at the top.

          • mikej

            Not sure if you’re being sarcastic, but go read “The Man who Ran the Moon: James E. Webb and the Secret History of Project Apollo.” Webb was an old-school Democrat who tried to make NASA’s money do as social engineering as he could.

          • Paper Kosmonaut

            I wasn’t sarcastic in any way. It is always great to learn something new. I am very interested in modern history / cold war / space history. This Great Society story actually *was* new for me.
            I’ll try to get my hands on that book. James Webb was one of the men who made NASA big, I am curious about his story. Thanks for the tip, Mike.

          • Anonymous

            > This Great Society story actually *was* new for me.

            Keep in mind that Saturn V production was terminated – and thus the Apollo program – in 1968. Enough S-V’s were built to either make it to the moon and thus “win” the space race, or fail spectacularly. In either event, from a political standpoint, that was enough…neither Kennedy, nor Johnson, nor Nixon gave a rats ass about space.
            Johnson, however, *did* give a damn about his ill-conceived “Great Society” programs. And in the years since Apollo peaked, NASA funding has dropped from a maximum of about 4% of the federal budget to well under 1%; while the GS programs are now well over 20% and growing.

            for 2014:
            Medicare: $531B (GS program)

            Medicaid: $249B (GS program)

            Dept of Housing and Urban Development: $33.1B (GS program)

            Dept of Education: $71.2B

            None of these programs and departments existed when NASA was founded. The DoE, for example, only began in 1980. Remember, when NASA started, these programs, and their spending, *did* *not* *exist.* In the years since they have grown into budgetary monsters.

            In comparison, NASA is getting $17.7B, or 0.46% of the budget. That’s less than half of one percent.

          • Blappy

            Thanks for the book reference. I just bought one off Evilbay for $9.00.

  • mzungu

    Think US company do have/bought legal rights/blue prints to to build RD-180., think it was labor cost, existing tooling, etc… that we still buy them from the Pinkos. 😀

    but I agree, not all tech know-how is in the blueprints/reports.

  • Egor Petrov

    It can be very frustrating for energomash producing RD-180.
    Energomash’s executive director believes that this could lead to the closure of the company.
    Maybe it’s just a fight between Roscosmos and Energomash.
    I apologize for the Google translate.

    • publiusr

      That would not surprise me. The ironic thing about the space race between our two nations was that it was competition that helped kill N-1 with all the backbiting. Here in the USA, the strong man approach was used:

      “Get behind von Braun–and toe the line” unless you were Houbolt and Bossart, etc.
      But, never fear, this “boosts” interest in the F-1 revival.
      Now that all the American rocket companies are talking together–maybe we can get M-1 one day…

  • Bruce

    The Russians copied a few of our aircraft…..B-1,etc. Take the movie Rocky IV for example….
    When he got off the two engine plane that was probably a DC-3 it would also be a Lusinov Li-2
    in Russia.

  • Blue Bottle

    Scott, since you seem to have Russian readers now, perhaps some trips to the Monino air museum might be in order. I’d love to get some blueprints for a Bounder and T-4.