How could it have been a surprise to anyone? The West imposes limited sanctions on Russian leaders for their illegal annexation of Crimea and efforts to destabilize Eastern Ukraine and Moscow retaliates. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and on the list of individuals sanctioned by the United States and the European Union, announced two days ago that Russia would no longer provide U.S. astronauts with rides to the International Space Station (for which the U.S. pays $70 million per passenger). In addition, Rogozin declared that his country would no longer sell U.S. companies rocket engines such as the RD-180 used to power the first stage of the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket. At his press conference, the Deputy Prime Minister proposed that the U.S. use a trampoline to get to the ISS, thereby threatening U.S. access to space and simultaneously proving himself to be the first senior Russian government official ever to possess a sense of humor.
The situation is dangerous but not desperate. ULA has a two year stockpile of RD-180s. It also could shift some launches to a second booster, the Delta IV. There are limits to the performance of the Delta IV; in addition, it is more costly to launch than the Atlas V. In the wings is SpaceX with its Falcon 9 booster which already has successfully conducted several cargo flights to the ISS. NASA has a major program underway to acquire a follow-on system to the Space Shuttle that will allow U.S. astronauts to ride into space aboard a U.S. made system. The three companies with contracts under the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program, Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, are planning to test fly their candidate vehicles in the next several years. Whichever one wins the down select needs to go into space aboard a U.S. made launch vehicle.
So over the mid-term, the United States must find an alternative to its reliance on Russian rocket motors. One solution is to simply rely on SpaceX to provide launchers until the end of time. This is a somewhat better solution than continuing U.S. dependence on Russia. However, it still leaves the U.S. dependent on a single supplier of rocket motors. An alternative option is to accelerate current Air Force and NASA R&D programs to design and build a new, modern and more efficient liquid fuel rocket motor. The two contractors could compete against one another for a production contract thus creating a rocket motor industrial base with at least two serious players (SpaceX and the winner of the AF/NASA competition).
There are few chances in the international security business to say I told you so. This is one of them. I started writing about the dangers of U.S. reliance on Russian rocket motors months ago. I don’t want to be in the position in a couple of years of being able to say it again. Therefore, the U.S. government needs to bite the bullet, spend the money and invest in a U.S. large liquid rocket motor industrial base.
Find Archived Articles: