This is not actually satire. Orbital Sciences Corp has determined that the cause of their Antares rocket explosion last week is closely tied to the turbo pumps in the refurbished 1960-vintage Russian AJ26 rocket engines used on the Antares vehicle. As a result, they made a statement, reported in the Washington Times, that they would “likely” end use of the engines in their unmanned rockets currently used to resupply the International Space Station.
The decision to use the Russian engines in the first place has been continually controversial and marked by other failures. In a 2012 interview, competitor Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, mocked the use of the old engine technology, calling it the “punch line to a joke.” Orbital Sciences, however, is not the only American launch vehicle company to resort to using Russian rocket engines. The United Launch Alliance’s workhorse rocket, the Atlas V, was designed from the ground up to specifically use Russian RD-180 engines, and that rocket will likely carry crews of astronauts.
Gross Mismanagement of American Rocket Science Beginning to Show?
The fact that so many U.S. launch programs have resorted to Russian engine technology is a giant red flag in an aerospace industry struggling to shrug off recent failures, political setbacks and accusations about the premature retirement of the Space Shuttle Program. The loss of the Shuttle, in particular, has forced the U.S. to bear the humiliation of being dependent on Russian launch vehicles for rides to the Space Station at a geopolitically hostile time.
The headline’s suggestion that Russian sales girls are responsible for these problems is tongue-in-cheek, of course, though vodka might have been a factor. I (the author) have worked on the Atlas V program alongside Russian rocket engineers, and I greatly admired their professionalism and skill. They are geniuses, every one. But aside from that, I don’t know how to explain the strategically inexcusable decisions that have made U.S. access to space totally dependent on Russian cooperation. This seemed a mistake when the first moves were being made in the 1990s, and it seems the full weight of those mistakes are becoming clear now. The U.S. is simply unprepared to supply all the affordable, dependable rocket engines it now needs, and that is due to catastrophic mismanagement and a drought of foresight. Fixing that will take some time.