Boeing's new Starliner is in trouble because of... Russia, of course

One of these days we were supposed to be getting the American space program back on its feet in a more independent fashion. There are a few contestants vying to help us achieve this, coming from both NASA and the private sector. One entrant is Boeing, long known for their air and space technology. They’re working to produce the Starliner, a replacement for the shuttle fleet which they hope will reestablish US launch capability from American soil. You may have seen this brief and highly inspirational advertisement for the program on television.

It’s a pretty impressive presentation. If they can manage to pull off even a portion of what they are claiming we could have full control of our access to the international space station and targets beyond in a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, there is one significant fly in the ointment. One of the main engines required to lift the passengers and payload into space is being produced as part of a joint venture between two companies. One of them is the venerable Pratt and Whitney with a manufacturing facility located in Florida. But their partner in this operation is located in, you guessed it… Russia. (NASA Space Flight)

Classed as a top risk, the ASAP cited an “issue” with Starliner’s launch vehicle of choice, the Atlas V.

This rocket is one of the most reliable vehicles in the world. However, there appears to be a problem with the paperwork side, specifically certification – based on the issue of the Atlas V main engine being a foreign piece of hardware.

The RD-180 engine is built by RD AMROSS, a U.S. joint venture of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, located in West Palm Beach, Florida, and NPO Energomash of Khimki, Russia.

Partly in responses geopolitical pressures, ULA contracted with Blue Origin for their BE-4 engine to serve ULA’s “next generation launch vehicle” which is the favored replacement engine of choice for ULA. The BE-4 is set to be the main engine for ULA’s new launch vehicle, Vulcan.

However, Starliner will initially launch with Atlas V, powered by her RD-180 main engine. As such, the certification issue is being worked on by Boeing, which is part of ULA.

One of the top Boeing risks is the RD-180 engine certification. The engine has a long history, but it has been difficult to get detailed design information for certification,” added the ASAP minutes.

Given our current relations with the Russians this is obviously leading to complications. It’s bad enough that we already rely on the Russians to give our astronauts rides into space at the same time as Congress is working on yet more sanctions. But that’s only threatening our ability to get off the ground today. Looking forward to the future, it would be a huge step backward if we hitched our wagon to a new vehicle only to find out that we suddenly didn’t have access to the rockets required to get off the ground. And even if the Russians were not threatening to cancel deliveries in some sort of power-play we might be tying our own hands if the orders were violating our own code of conduct.

We also shouldn’t pretend that this is some problem which just cropped up and nobody could’ve seen coming. Last summer Senator John McCain was examining the situation and already raising the alarm, asking whether or not any money spent on this program was going to wind up in the pockets of Russians who were already under sanctions. (Space News)

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants the Air Force to prove that when it buys an Atlas 5 rocket and the subsequent Russian RD-180 rocket engine from United Launch Alliance, none of the money goes to Russian leaders under sanctions from the U.S. government.

McCain filed an amendment May 25 to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the defense authorization bill for 2017 requiring certification from the Treasury Department that any new Air Force contract to use the Atlas 5 rocket does not violate sanctions. The Senate is voting on amendmen

Granted, things weren’t quite as bad with the Russians back then as they are now, but let’s at least give the guy credit for seeing the complications coming.

It’s not as if I’m going out of my way to find new problems for the Trump administration to deal with on top of the rest of the fires which already need to be put out, but somebody needs to look into this. We either need to maintain a civil enough relationship with the Russians to keep doing business and lock in assurances that these rockets are going to be available or Pratt and Whitney need to find themselves a new partner. If we are pursuing the latter course, this entire project could be set back by years yet again. If we’re going to remain serious about having an American space program, we simply cannot continue to rely on the Russians in the long run.

The original article was edited to remove a reference to SpaceX which is not involved with the Starliner program.