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Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday pushed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the Pentagon to fly satellites to space using Russian rocket motors for five more years.

The RD-180 engine is a key component in a popular rocket built by the Denver-based United Launch Alliance. Lawmakers for the past two years have called for banning the engine amid rising tension with Russia, where it is built.

But moving away from the Russian rocket engine has proved troublesome as U.S. manufacturers haven't come up with a rapid replacement.

Colorado's U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner were among lawmakers who pushed a measure introduced Monday that would allow use of the motor through 2022.

"This amendment will help ensure there is true competition and reliability in our national security space launches, and will allow the Department of Defense to responsibly transition to a domestic engine," Bennet, a Democrat, said in a statement. "Competition is ultimately best for the taxpayer, and assured access to space is critical to our warfighters in the field and to our national security as a whole."

Gardner, a Republican, said allowing continued use of the Russian motor would help the Pentagon avoid disruptions in access to orbit.

"It also protects our national security by ensuring continued access to space, which is critical to the detection of missiles, transmitting secure communication, and gathering intelligence," Gardner said in a statement.

United Launch Alliance rockets are gaining some competition this year, with the Air Force awarding a launch to upstart aerospace firm SpaceX. That company's Falcon-9 rocket, while American-made, has a short track record that makes some lawmakers nervous about leaning on it for all launches.

The outright ban on use of the RD-180, laid down in a 2015 defense measure, would hurt United Launch Alliance, which uses the engine on its Atlas V launcher, the most common rocket used by the Defense Department. The firm has plans in place to move away from the Russian engine.

"ULA's Vulcan rocket, which will launch in 2019, will have an American engine, offer the best value," the company said on its website.


Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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