There is a battle going on right now for the US military's launch contracts, and one of the major players, United Launch Alliance, just suffered a blow in its hopes for securing future multi-billion dollar deals.
Earlier this week, Congress attempted to make some last-minute changes to a major military budget bill to allow ULA to continue buying Russian-made RD-180 engines. But on Wednesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain shot down the request.
Until its new Vulcan rockets (complete with American-made BE-4 engines) are ready, ULA relies on the RD-180 engines to power its Atlas V rockets, which commonly carry US military satellites to space. But last year, the government decided to put a moratorium on importing these engines, in response to the crisis in Ukraine, under section 1608 of the National Defense Authorization Act. This week, Congress tried to argue that preventing ULA from buying the rockets would limit the US's "assured access to space," based on a legal requirement that the military always have at least two rockets ready to launch if need be.
But McCain wasn't buying it. According to a Reuters report, he said the guaranteed access requirement is currently ensured by NASA, since the agency can technically still buy Russian-made engines if it wants. (Relations between NASA have been a bit strained of late, however.)
"What Section 1608 does is prevent over $300 million of precious US defense resources from subsidizing Vladimir Putin and the Russian military industrial base," he said.
ULA isn't completely screwed. Last year's bill still allowed the company to receive the standing orders it had for RD-180s, which means 13 more engines are heading this way. Some of those engines, if not all, are committed to the block buy contract ULA made with the Air Force, which means the company should be able to continue launching rockets until its new engine is ready around 2022.
But McCain's decision might make it harder for ULA to compete with SpaceX, the other major competitor for future military contracts that will be negotiated as early as June. Since it was given the green light to compete last year, SpaceX has been fighting to convince the government that its launches will be cheaper and more efficient while it continues to seek Air Force certification for its Falcon 9 platform. With McCain's rejection of this last-ditch effort, somewhere Elon Musk is smiling.