NASA wants to maintain its unique cooperation with Russia to haul astronauts into space and continue to use RD-180 engines, while viable alternatives are being developed by US firms, the space agency’s administrator said.
“The United States of America is working really hard not to be dependent on the RD-180 engine,” Jim Bridenstine said on C-Span. “So, do we want to be dependent? No! Do we want to have a partnership? Absolutely.”
For years, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has been relying on Energomash RD-180 engines to power the Atlas V rocket. However, geopolitical tensions and sanctions introduced by the US against Russia has prompted calls by US politicians to consider replacement of the Russian-supplied technology. Until a viable alternative is produced, the US wants to preserve its cooperation with Russia.
The 2018 US National Defense Authorization Act limits purchases of Russian rocket engines after December 31, 2022. But on Thursday, in response to the latest round of US sanctions, Russian lawmaker Sergey Ryabukhin warned that Moscow could consider cutting off supplies of the RD-180 before that deadline.
When the US introduced its initial set of sanctions against Moscow, American lawmakers made plenty of room for space exploration, Bridenstine pointed out.
“Space was specifically carved out because we wanted to continue to cooperate on space issues,” the administrator said, noting that he is keen to meet the head of the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), which is currently blacklisted by the State Department. Earlier Roscosmos said that its Director General Dmitry Rogozin could hold talks with his counterpart in Baikonur, Kazakhstan in October.
“I intend to [meet Rogozin] in the near future,” Bridenstine said. “And we are working on how do we maintain this relationship given those [sanctions] constraints and I’m very confident that we’ll be able to work it out.”
“NASA represents an amazing soft power capability for the United State of America. When other channels of communication break down, nations can still communicate on space exploration and space discovery and science,” the 43-year-old noted.
At the same time, Bridenstine said he is “confident” that Boeing, SpaceX and other US companies will eventually produce viable and safe alternatives to the Russian engines. Earlier, it was reported that ULA, most likely, will continue to use Russian-produced engines until 2024-2025 or even up to 2028.
Meanwhile, to expedite the process of breaking America’s full dependence on Russia in crewed programs, NASA and Congress stepped up funding for commercial efforts, which should allow Boeing and SpaceX to begin launching astronauts into space from US soil. After NASA closed its 30-year Space Shuttle program in 2011, Russia and China remain the only two countries capable of putting a human into space.
A recent survey of public opinion by Pew showed that a vast majority of Americans (72 percent) believe that it is essential for their homeland –which once had put men on the Moon– to maintain its space “dominance” and “continue to be a world leader in space exploration.” An even larger number, 80 percent of Americans, believe that the International Space Station (ISS), which incorporated modules of the Russian space station that Moscow could not afford at the time, has been a “good investment” for their country.
However, while SpaceX and Boeing hurry to produce alternatives to the Russian engines and spacecraft to restore independent US access to space, only a third of Americans believe that private companies on their own “will ensure enough progress in this area even without NASA’s involvement.”
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