The crisis over Vladimir Putin’s illegal seizure and annexation of the Crimea has produced lots of commentary regarding the balance of power between Russia and the West as well as options available to one side to coerce the other. There is a general consensus among the experts that the Kremlin’s actions must be met by a Western response that both exacts a price and deters further aggression against the Ukraine, although there is not much agreement regarding the extent and severity of those consequences. In part, this reflects the reality that Russia holds some potent cards in the form of energy supplies to Western Europe, potential military sales to countries hostile to the U.S. and Europe, or even simple interference in ongoing negotiations. In fact, the Kremlin has already floated a trial balloon suggesting that additional sanctions on Russia could lead to a less cooperative attitude regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran. A rather brilliant gambit; what does the West fear more, a nuclear Iran or Russian domination of the Ukraine?
The Kremlin holds other important cards, of which the American people and even most of the U.S. government are blissfully unaware. One of these is that the U.S. space launch capability is critically dependent on rocket engines provided by Russia. Many U.S. payloads, particularly commercial spacecraft, are sent aloft aboard the venerable but extremely reliable Atlas V rocket. The first stage of the Atlas V is the Russia-built RD-180. Were Russia to restrict sales of the RD-180, the U.S. at present would only have one rocket for both commercial and military space launchers, the equally old Delta IV. Space X’s Falcon 9 is on the verge of certification for launch this year. However, the current variant cannot lift heavy payloads into either low or high orbits; this will wait on a future version of the Falcon. Simply put, without the RD-180, the ability of the U.S. to launch both commercial and military payloads into space would be seriously compromised.
Some space and defense experts have waived aside concerns over U.S. dependence on Russia for rocket engines with the bromide that the Kremlin wouldn’t want to lose the revenues from these sales. After the Crimean annexation and with continuing uncertainty regarding Moscow’s intentions towards the rest of Ukraine, this argument cannot be so readily accepted. If Putin is willing to play politics with hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of energy sales to the West, why should he care at all about losing a few hundred million in rocket motor sales?
As I have written elsewhere, it is time for the United States to make a concerted effort to develop a domestic alternative to the RD-180, a modern liquid-fueled engine that could support not only current launch activities but be the foundation for a return of manned space flight and expeditions to the planets. There hasn’t been a new U.S. liquid-fueled rocket engine in more than 40 years. A new engine would take advantage of decades of advances in engineering and manufacturing to reduce cost and improve performance.
NASA and the U.S. Air Force need to expand their current, limited support for development of new advanced liquid-fueled engines. This program once made sense on economic and job creation grounds alone. Now it has become a national security imperative.
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