Is it possible that Ukrainian space industry, which recently passed through rough time and was strongly affected with economic crisis, will beat Russian competitor on American market?
Millions of USD granted for research and development to American companies surely will finally resolve lack of American rocket engine with comparable parameters to RD-180. But what is better motivation for increasing effort than little competition ?
During recent visit of representatives of Ukrainian authorities in USA on 23-27 May 2016, Ukrainian side proposed to combine efforts of American and Ukrainian space industry to develop new rocket engine able to replace RD-180 manufactured by Russian NPO Energomash. To better understand sense of this proposition, it should be reminded that RD-180 engines are currently used in Atlas V rocket for lifting military satellites in USA along with NASA and commercial payloads. Due the tensions with Russia after Crimean crisis, authorities of USA decided to set ban for Russian engines. It resulted in multiple problems in signed contracts between ULA and Department of Defense, main public customer of ULA. United Launch Alliance was ultimately allowed to import limited number of RD-180 engines (18 engines will be necessary to complete all signed contracts in following years) to finish signed contracts but situation became pretty hard mainly due the lack of American made engine, which could replace RD-180. New engine, which is already under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne (AR1 engine), will be ready not earlier then on 2019, while BE-4 engine developed by Blue Origin (with static fire tests planned for the end of 2016 and considered as main propulsion for new ULA Vulcan rocket) will be probably ready 16 months earlier. It means that next two years DoD will count on Russian engines and in case of any delay with AR1, BE-4 or Vulcan this time could easily extend. Even in case when both engines will be ready on time, it should not be surprising that creating another opportunity will bring economic benefits for DoD. Cooperation with Ukraine could result in low cost engine significantly cheaper than BE-4 or AR1. It should not be surprising that proposition of Ukraine was taken under consideration and according to TASS news agency will be disputed during further negotiations already on November 2016 in Kiev. Chief of the Ukrainian space agency SSAU, Lyubomyr Sabadosh confirmed this proposition in interview given to UNIAN news agency:
"We have proposes using our capabilities for implementing a joint design solution for the production of a liquid propellant engine, which is currently purchased in the Russian Federation. Our partners have an understanding that it's quite a complicated task, but we can cope with it, and the discussion will take place at the level of professional experts,"
For Ukrainian space industry it will be unique chance to leave crisis behind and enter to the American market. Their space industry, which was during years of USSR most modern, was put in the front of catastrophe during recent two years. Crisis on Eastern Ukraine and Crimea was beginning of the end of cooperation with Roscosmos, which was main source of money for Ukrainian space industry. End of the joint programs like Sea Launch (sea platform launching Ukrainian Zenit rockets), cancelling Russian participation in Dnepr rocket (which was offered commercially during recent years by ISC Kosmotras) along with cancelling Tsyklon-4 program by Brazilian partners, left main space industry company on Ukraine, Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, without any customers. In the beginning of the 2015 situation in State Design Bureau Yuzhnoye and cooperating facilities like State Enterprise Production Association Yuzniy Machine Building Plant or Scientific and Production Enterprise Khartron-ARKOS (not to mention about smaller subcontractors) was extremely bad. Salaries were reduced and factories operated only for three days in week. To keep Yuzhnoye facility operating Ukraine was even forced to seek money in foreign loans in International Monetary Fund. Starting cooperation with American companies would be chance for new investments and restructuration. Implementing new technologies and modern managing rules into experienced design offices on Ukraine could result in many interesting possibilities. Combining it with much lower labor cost in Ukraine, it is more than possible to manufacture new generation rocket engines in Ukraine with lower cost that NPO Energomash is offering to ULA their RD-180. It could be clear sign that DoD would like to avoid relying on one source of engines, but also is targeting in every possibility of cost reduction. It is extremely important from point of view of DoD, if we take under consideration that number of launches contracted for Department of Defense is still increasing and economical sense of reducing costs of rocket engines is crucial for providing constant and low cost access to space for DoD in future years.
On picture above: RD-180 in action.