An Atlas V rocket thundered to space on Thursday, May 22, carrying a clandestine surveillance satellite for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) amidst a swirling controversy regarding the boosters long term viability due to its dependence on the continued assured supply of Russian made engines.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket soared to space with a super secret payload designated NROL-33 in support of US national defense from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 9:09 a.m. EDT.
The launch was carried live on a ULA webcast but was deliberately cutoff after five minutes as part of a preannounced news blackout on the top secret mission.
Nothing is known about the nature of NROL-33 or its covert intelligence gathering mission.
The liftoff caps an impressively successful series of four high priority and high value launches by ULA that were accomplished at a rapid pace of barely seven weeks time – speaking volumes about their reliability and diligence.
And the Atlas V also marked the second successful ULA rocket launch in less than one week. It follows on the heels of last weeks blastoff of a ULA Delta IV rocket with an advanced GPS satellite for the US Air Force that benefits hundreds of millions of ordinary users worldwide.
In April, another clandestine surveillance satellite dubbed NROL-67 was also launched on an Atlas V for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
One can conclude that NROL-67 was certainly a larger and heavier payload compared to NROL-33 since the most powerful version of the Atlas V launcher was used with five strap on solid rocket motors vs. no solids for Thursday’s liftoff. NROL-67 also was housed inside the larger five-meter diameter payload fairing.
But the future of the venerable Atlas V – and therefore even US National Security launches like those of NROL-33 and NROL-67 – is cloudy because each first stage core is powered by a pair of Russian made RD-180 rocket engines whose future supply was cast in doubt by recent statements from Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, lawsuits by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and pointed questions from Congress.
“Moscow is banning Washington from using Russian-made rocket engines, which the US has used to deliver its military satellites into orbit,” Rogozin said at a media briefing held on May 13.
An almost cold war like crisis in US-Russian relations began with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea region earlier this year.
The ongoing Ukraine crisis has resulted in continuing deadly confrontations and the institution of economic sanctions against Russia and several Russian officials, including specifically Rogozin, by the US and Western European nations.
“We proceed from the fact that without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said.
The dual chamber, dual nozzle RD-180 engines are manufactured in Russia by NPO Energomash and has performed flawlessly to date.
Rogozin’s statements could effectively block their export to the US, thus calling into question the reliability of their continued supply for the Atlas V first stage and the ability of the US to launch critical national security payloads.
The Atlas V is also planned as the launcher for two of the three companies – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – vying for the next round of commercial crew space taxi contracts aimed at launching US astronauts to the ISS. The commercial crew contracts will be awarded by NASA later this year.
Despite Rogozin’s threatening statements, the RD-180 export situation is not completely clear and ULA has some engines on hand to last a few years.
“ULA has a two year supply of RD-180 engines already stockpiled in the U.S.,” ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye told me.
“We currently have 16 engines in the U.S.” said Rye.
Five more RD-180 engines are due for delivery later this year.
ULA also issued this recent statement in response to Rogozins’ comments.
“ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions.”
Certain national security payloads can also be shifted from the Atlas V to the Delta IV.
“ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption. ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all U.S.-produced rocket engines.”
Besides Rogozin’s listing on the US economic sanctions target list, he was also named by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in his firms recent attempts to legally block the importation of the RD-180 engines by ULA for the Atlas V as a violation of the US economic sanctions.
Federal Judge Susan Braden initially imposed a temporary injunction blocking the RD-180 imports on April 30. She rescinded that order on May 8, after receiving written communications clarifications from the US Justice and Commerce departments that the engine import did not violate the US government imposed sanctions.
Here’s my earlier articles about Rogozin’s statements, Musk’s suit and more about the effects of economic sanctions imposed by the US and Western nations in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; here, here, here and here.
ULA remains upbeat.
“Congratulations to all of our mission partners on today’s successful launch of the NROL-33 mission! The ULA team is honored to deliver another critical national security asset to orbit together with the NRO Office of Space Launch and the Air Force,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Atlas and Delta Programs.
“Today’s launch occurred six days after last week’s GPS IIF-6 launch – the second time this year that this team has launched back-to-back missions within a week. Successfully launching at this tempo is a testament to the team’s focus on mission success, one-launch-at-a-time, and continuous improvement of our launch processes.”
Watch for Ken’s articles about the ongoing Ukraine crisis with uncertain and potentially dire consequences for US National Security and NASA.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing ULA, Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, commercial space, Orion, Mars rover, MAVEN, MOM and more planetary and human spaceflight news.
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