“In a situation like this, we can’t supply the United States with our world’s best rocket engines,” Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, said on Russian state television, according to Reuters. “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what.”
Russia’s decision to withdraw any technical support probably would not affect any upcoming launches. ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno has said the company has been using the engines in its Atlas V rocket for years and has enough expertise in house to handle any issues that might arise with its engine supply. In a statement, ULA spokesman Jessica Rye said the company has “agreements for technical support and spares, but if that support is not available, we will still be able to safely and successfully fly out our Atlas program.”
Those BE-4 engines have been delayed, but Bruno has said he expects to receive them this year and be able to start flying Vulcan.
Officials from Northrop Grumman and NASA did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how the lack of the RD-181 engines would affect any upcoming Antares launches to the space station.
Joe Laurienti, the CEO of Ursa Major, a U.S. manufacturer of propulsion systems, said that the industry has “known for a long time that our dependence on Russian rocket engines was both a vulnerability and an inhibitor of innovation. But this situation highlights that despite the assurances from major defense contractors, the U.S. still has a long way to go to develop the robust and flexible industrial base required to remain the leader in space.”
Rogozin on Wednesday also threatened the partnership that has sustained the space station for more than 20 years. Speaking on Russia Today, a state-controlled English-language station, he said through an interpreter that Russia “will closely monitor the actions of our American partners and, if they continue to be hostile, we will return to the question of the existence of the International Space Station.”
That followed tweets last week asking whether the United States wanted to ruin the cooperation in operating the station. Rogozin reminded President Biden that Russia is responsible for firing the thrusters that keep the station in the correct orbit and said that without Russia, the station could come crashing down.
He reiterated that point in his appearance on Russia Today, saying that the United States would “want to maintain cooperation with Russia within the International Space Station despite the numerous sanctions.”
“Why?” he asked. “Because it is impossible to manage the space station without us. We’re responsible for its navigation and fuel delivery.”
NASA has sought to avoid any talk of ending its partnership with Russia. Earlier this week, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, said the two space agencies “are still talking together. We’re still doing training together. We’re still working together. Obviously, we understand the global situation and where it is, but as a joint team, these teams are operating together.”
She added, “Obviously we need to continue to monitor the situation. … We’ve operated in these kinds of situations before and both sides always operated very professionally and understand the importance of this fantastic mission and continuing to have peaceful relations between the two countries in space.”
Later this month, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei is scheduled to return from the space station with a pair of Russian cosmonauts on a Russian spacecraft. When asked about that flight, Lueders said NASA was still expecting Russia to fly Vande Hei home safely and that no changes had been made.
Also on Thursday, OneWeb, which manufactures satellites designed to provide Internet connectivity, announced it was suspending all launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where Russia launches its Soyuz rocket. The company had been scheduled to launch its next batch of satellites from there on Friday.
Rogozin said Russia would allow the launch only if the British government divested its stake in the company and if the satellites would not be used for military purposes.