As tensions between Russia and the US move to new heights comes Senate testimony today that the US space program is critically dependent on Russia for rocket engines. If Russia were to stop shipments of rocket engines critical national-security missions could be delayed up to four years.

rocket engines

United Launch Alliance’s (ULA), a joint venture between military industrial players Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT) and The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA), has been handed the Pentagon contract without much competition and relies on a Russian RD-180 engine to get off the ground.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister threatened to cut off rocket engines sales

Russia isn’t above using its leverage to its benefit with the US.  Using Twitter as a threat platform as recently as this May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to cut off all sales of RD-180 engines to the United States intended for use in military launches, a Fox News report noted.

“If you look at what has happened to us now in the past few months, it points to a vulnerability,” Gen. William Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, said in remarks to senators. The report noted that the US has only 15 RD-180 rocket engines in reserve. This won’t meet existing demand from the US military, NASA and other government agencies, who are launching near 7 to 10 rockets per year.

Space launch open bidding

While SpaceX produces its own rockets, that’s not entirely the solution as they are only certified to launch smaller and mid-sized rockets.

For its part NASA is encouraging the development of private American efforts to taxi astronauts into space through its commercial crew program. The problem is such taxi space programs might not be ready until 2017. More money isn’t the problem, either, as experts indicated it is difficult to push the readiness date up and maintain quality.

As reported in ValueWalk today, the US Air Force announced open bidding on a satellite launch in 2016. However, the Pentagon hadn’t planned to challenge incumbent United Launch Alliance LLC (ULA) with rival bids until next year, the report says. A second launch project is expected to be open for bidding in September of this year.  ULA has been providing launching services for the Pentagon’s sensitive satellites since 2006.