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Russian RD-180 embargo could be shot in the arm for American rocket engine firm

Atlas V launch
Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA/Getty Images

According to a Saturday story in the Los Angeles Times, the recent revival of tensions between the United States and Russia, not seen since the end of the Cold War, may provide a shot in the arm for the American rocket engine industry. Due in part in retaliation for economic sanctions that were enacted in response to Russian aggression in the Ukraine, Russia announced that it would no longer sell its own RD-180 rocket engines for American military launches. This has had American aerospace experts scrambling to find a replacement.

Engineers at Aerojet Rocketdyne are hard at work designing a new liquid fuel rocket engine, called the AR-1, which could replace the Russian RD-180 and compete with it on the world market. The AR-1 would be a liquid fueled engine that would generate 500,000 pounds of thrust. It could be used in a number of launch vehicles, particularly the United Launch Alliance Atlas V, which currently uses the RD-180.

The Russian embargo, should it actually go into effect, would deplete current American supplies of RD-180 engines in two years. The AR-1 would not be available for another five years, should the decision be made to develop and build them. Each engine would cost $25 million per copy. But the production of an American made rocket engine would serve as an economic stimulus to California, as it would be produced at a facility in Canoga Park, which has recently suffered cutbacks and layoffs.

The stakes for weaning American rockets off of dependency on Russian engines could not be starker, according to Space News. If the United States actually loses the RD-180, the Atlas V would be temporarily grounded, as many as 31 missions could be delayed, costing the United States as much as $5 billion. However SpaceX, whose Falcon family of launch vehicles has a made in the USA rocket engine, could benefit tremendously if the U.S. military switches its business from ULA while it refurbishes its own launch vehicles with new American made engines.