May 13 (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain on Wednesday rejected a request by U.S. officials for changes in federal law to let the two largest U.S. arms makers use more Russian rocket engines to compete for military satellite launches against privately held SpaceX.
McCain’s comments reflect frustration among some lawmakers about the Pentagon’s failure to halt purchases of the RD-180 Russian engines after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
As SpaceX becomes a potential competitor to current monopoly launch provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, billions of dollars of orders are at stake and both sides are lobbying lawmakers hard.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper urged McCain in a letter dated May 11 to amend federal law so the Pentagon can retain “assured access to space”. This is a legal requirement that mandates availability of two satellite launch vehicles so the U.S. military can always get satellites into space, even if one of the rockets is grounded due to a catastrophic failure.
McCain said the letter ignored NASA’s role in providing assured access to space, and the law did not prevent NASA from continuing to use the Russian rocket engines. That meant NASA could always step in to help in the event of a crisis, he said.