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Russian rocket engine embargo could benefit Elon Musk's SpaceX

Elon Musk
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A Thursday story in the International Business Times suggests that the main beneficiary of the Russian rocket engine embargo against the United States may be Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceX, an entrepreneurial space launch company has been keen to penetrate that defense space satellite market for quite some time. The company is already a major NASA contractor with its Dragon cargo ship and has launched a number of commercial satellites.

As the Washington Post notes, SpaceX is conducting a law suit with the federal government over a contract for 36 military launches that has been granted to United Launch Alliance, the company’s main competitor. SpaceX is involved with a lengthy certification process with the Department of Defense that would allow it to compete for military contracts. It would like the military to cancel the ULA contract and put it out to competitive bid once SpaceX gets the certification.

Complicating all of this is the fact that Russia has placed an embargo on its RD-180 rocket engines for American military use. ULA is dependent on those engines for its launch vehicles. The company says that it has a two year supply of the Russian engines, but then would need a replacement.

SpaceX’s Falcon family of launch vehicles has a made in the USA rocket engine, the Merlin 1D. It would thus not be affected by any Russian embargo and would easily be able to perform military launches. The company also claims that it is price competitive with ULA as well.

This has led to accusations of bad faith between the two companies. SpaceX has accused ULA of practicing cronyism with the government. ULA, on the other hand, has bizarrely blamed SpaceX for the Russian rocket embargo and other measures taken by the Russian Federation to retaliate in space for sanctions imposed as a result of the aggression against the Ukraine

Russia has also hinted that it might end the contract to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Musk has an answer for that too. SpaceX is developing a crewed version of the Dragon under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. It is due to start flying by 2017.