How Tensions with Russia Could Stall U.S. Satellite Launches
Policy + Politics

How Tensions with Russia Could Stall U.S. Satellite Launches

REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 officially kicked off the space race — its mere existence giving the U.S. government, and the American public, yet another reason to fear the Russian bear. But that fear would begin to subside by the mid-1970s, at least as far as it was expressed in the space race.

In 1975, an American Apollo spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with a Russian Soyuz space capsule. Ostensibly designed to test systems compatibilities in the event of a space rescue, the mission was mainly a public relations exercise — a high flying symbol of the détente that now existed between the two Cold War rivals.

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Nearly 40 years later, the U.S. and Russia are partners on the International Space Station, along with Japan, Europe, and Canada. If anything, America and Russia may have gotten a little too chummy about all things space; the Defense Department now relies entirely on a Russian aerospace company for its military satellite launches.

United Launch Alliance, the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, may make the rockets America's military satellites sit on top of, waiting to be shot into space, but it's Russian-made rocket motors that get them there. And these motors, RD-180s, may soon be unavailable for use due to tensions over the situation in Ukraine. In May, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said his country would no longer allow their export so long as they're used to lift military payloads.

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This strange situation that has the U.S. dependent on its former bitter rival for a key portion of its space program developed after the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. stopped designing new rocket motors and the Russians kept at it. So companies like NPO Energomash, which makes the RD-180, now manufacture some of the world's best rocket engines. And ULA, like any responsible profit-driven enterprise, is going to go to suppliers who offer the best combination of product and price, especially in a business as touchy as launching exorbitantly expensive military satellites into orbit.

It says a lot about how far Russia's and America's respective space programs — not to mention overall relations between the two countries — have come in the past 60 years that a situation like this could even be in the realm of possibility. But the idea of profit, cost, and performance entered the space race a long time ago, when NASA sold the shuttle program to Congress in large part on the notion that the shuttle would pay for itself by carrying satellites into orbit for a fee.

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It's hard to blame the Russians for threatening to cut off America's supply of RD-180s, as at least some of the satellites being launched are likely being sent to spy on them. And the U.S. certainly needs to get back in the rocket-motor design game, no matter what happens in the Ukraine, though one expert estimates developing an engine on par with the current Russian models could take anywhere from five to eight years. 

Until then, if it takes Russian engineering to make America's space program reasonably functional, it might be worth President Obama sitting down with President Putin over a bottle of vodka and raising a toast to something both sides can agree on — though whatever that is will likely be as hard to find as Russian rocket motors might soon be.

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