| CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. May 22 An unmanned Atlas 5
rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in
Florida on Thursday with a classified satellite for the U.S.
National Reconnaissance Office.
Five minutes after the 9:09 a.m. EDT/13:09 GMT launch,
rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership
of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, shut down its live
webcast under a prearranged news blackout ordered by the U.S.
While the mission unfolds under a veil of secrecy, the
future of the Atlas 5 launcher is getting wide public view.
Potential rival Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) filed a
lawsuit last month to attempt to end ULA's exclusive right to
sell launch services to the U.S. military.
In its lawsuit, SpaceX also questioned whether the Atlas
rocket's Russian-made RD-180 engine violated economic sanctions
that the United States imposed to punish Russia for its
annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula. A U.S. federal judge
slapped a temporary injunction on the engine sales but then
lifted it a few days later after U.S. Treasury and State
Department officials said no specific sanctions appeared to have
The reprieve lasted less than a week. Russia, stung by U.S.
export bans, countered with a ban of its own on sales of rocket
engines that would be used to launch U.S. military satellites.
So far, the United States has received no official word that
the engine sales will stop, General William Shelton, who heads
the Air Force Space Command, told reporters at a Space
Foundation conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week.
For now, ties between the Russian company that builds the
rocket engines and ULA were proceeding as "business as usual,"
Shelton said on Tuesday.
A new Air Force report on the RD-180 issue determined that
an export ban would have significant impact on the U.S. military
launch program, sources briefed on the report told Reuters.
Options to mitigate a loss of the engines are limited
through 2017, the report said. It recommended the Air Force
increase funding to develop a replacement engine that would be
Shelton, who declined to comment on the report, said
developing a new engine likely would cost more than $1 billion
and take five years to complete.
In its lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Federal Court of Claims,
SpaceX offered another option - buying its U.S.-made Falcon 9
"Domestic competition using American rocket engines is
available," the lawsuit states.
ULA has said it has two years' of RD-180 engines available
in its inventory.
(Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Colorado Springs,
Colo.; Editing by Dan Grebler)