Sanctions or not, NASA uses Russian-made engines to propel rockets.

Yesterday, just seconds after takeoff, a NASA Antares rocket with a Russian-made engine exploded on takeoff. The mission was to carry supplies to the orbiting space station.

Today, the Guardian reports that Russian rocket manufacturer insists it is not to blame for Antares crash.

The Russian maker of the engine used in the unmanned US supply rocket that exploded after liftoff in Virginia denied on Wednesday that its product was at fault for the catastrophe.

The launch phase of the Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket relied on two AJ-26 engines that were originally produced in the 1970s for a failed Soviet moon program and later modernised for US space flights. Speculation quickly centered on the Soviet-based engines, which have failed in tests, when the rocket exploded in a giant fireball after takeoff on Tuesday night.

But the Kuznetsov company in the Russian city of Samara suggested the blame lay not with its NK-33 engines, which formed the basis for the AJ-26 engines, but rather with their later modification in the United States, Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.

Investigators from Nasa were scouring the site of the failed launch in Virginia by helicopter on Wednesday as they attempted to assess the extent of damage to the Wallops Flight Facility, which is owned by the agency. Engineers working for Orbital Science were trying to work out what caused the failure of the company’s $200m rocket, which forced the cargo mission resupplying the International Space Station to be aborted seconds after launch.

The launch was the first time the Antares rocket had been launched at night from Wallops, and the fireball caused by its explosion could be seen from miles around.

The accident is likely to intensify scrutiny over Nasa’s deal to subcontract resupply missions to private space operators following the end of its shuttle programme.

Orbital is under particular pressure to explain whether its use of ageing Russian rocket engines to power the first stage of the Antares rocket was a factor.

Kuznetsov argued that its NK-33 engines had undergone significant modernisation in the United States, including the addition of new components to direct the rocket’s thrust vector. “The development and certification of all new systems were done by the American side without Kuznetsov specialists. In essence, the AJ-26 engine is undergoing flight tests,” it said.

The NK-33 engines were first developed for the Soviet Union’s N-1 moon rocket, but many of them wound up in storage when that program was cancelled after several launch failures. The US company Aerojet Rocketdyne reportedly bought about 40 of the Soviet engines in the 1990s and began modifying them for use in US rockets. The resulting AJ-26 engine has suffered some failures during tests: one caught fire in 2011, and another being tested in May before use in an Antares flight burned up.

Since the end of its space shuttle program in 2011, the United States has had to rely on Russian engines and entire rocket systems to deliver astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station.

But rising political tensions between the two countries have complicated their space cooperation. Following US sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis, Dmitry Rogozin, the deputy PM in charge of the space and defence industries, barred the export of Russian engines used to launch US military satellites into orbit and threatened to end US participation in the ISS beyond 2020.

Spectacular Video

Please click on the link to see a fascinating video of the explosion.

Ironies Abound

For all the hundreds of billions of dollars of wasteful military spending, the US does not even build its own rocket engines.

In spite of sanctions, the US relies on Russian-made engines, even for military satellites.

To top it off, sanctions bar exporting the engines elsewhere, even though we use them here! It’s yet another perfect example of blatant US hypocrisy.  

Mike “Mish” Shedlock