The U.S. and Russia: No Better Together in Space Than on Land

by Taylor Dinerman
The history of a failed engagement

As the crisis in Ukraine drags on, it becomes more and more evident that Vladimir Putin intends to grab as much of Stalin’s old empire as possible. In spite of the 2009 “reset” and all the Obama administration’s efforts to appease the ruler of the Kremlin, Putin and his team really are America’s worst “geopolitical enemy,” as Mitt Romney explained during the 2012 campaign.

One of the most sensitive aspects of the Russia–U.S. relationship — the one concerning what the two countries launch into space — is being urgently reexamined in Washington and throughout the U.S. space industry. Today, Russia, with its Soyuz rocket-and-capsule combination, has total control over human access to the International Space Station (ISS), and unless plans change that will remain the case until at least 2017. The U.S. relies on Russian space technology in other important ways as well.

Carrying on without Russian cooperation is an unpleasant prospect for NASA, for our military, and for our space industry. But our political, military, and space-industry leaders need to start examining their options without delay.

Almost from the beginning of the Space Age, shortly after the Soviet launch of Sputnik in October 1957, some Americans (especially liberals) promulgated the idea that the U.S. and the USSR should cooperate rather than compete in the realm of space exploration. In creating NASA as a civilian agency, Eisenhower wanted to avoid giving the impression that the U.S. was in a “space race” with the USSR, while at the same time forging ahead with his No. 1 priority, the world’s first spy satellite, the Corona. This program completed its first successful mission in the summer of 1960, at the same time that JFK and the Democrats were complaining about the “missile gap.” The Corona failed to see any of the hundreds of missile bases that the Democrats claimed existed.

After winning the 1960 election, Kennedy made the first major gesture toward space cooperation with the Soviet Union when he wrote to Khrushchev, in March of 1962, that “the exploration of space is a broad and varied activity and the possibilities for cooperation are many.” The president proposed cooperation in weather satellites, earth-science satellites, communications satellites, and unmanned probes to the moon, Mars, and Venus.

Khrushchev wrote back — accepting the idea but adding, ominously, “Both you and we know, Mr. President, that the principles for designing and producing military rockets and space rockets are the same.” No one in Moscow is ever likely to forget that truth. All of Russia’s space activities are carried out with an eye to their military and politico-military value.

Americans, by contrast, often seem to regard space operations as a type of international psychotherapy. This was most famously on display when, in 2010, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden claimed that one of the most important missions he had been given by President Obama was to make Muslims feel good about themselves.

During the era of “détente” in the 1970s, the Nixon administration, which had little interest in space, promoted the 1975 Apollo–Soyuz mission, a handshake in space that did little other than to emphasize that the U.S. was no longer in the moon-rocket business. That mission was the last time any of the hardware built for the moon race flew into space.

While the U.S. pursued the Space Shuttle, largely because of Nixon’s supposed reluctance to “be the president who grounded the astronauts,” Russia continued to build a series of Salyut orbital outposts, one of which was equipped with a 23mm automatic cannon, which, according to space legend, was fired once, with nearly disastrous effect. The possibly apocryphal story is that the recoil from the cannon caused the whole station to do a backflip in orbit.

NASA, meanwhile, had wanted its own space station since shortly after its founding in 1958. Between May 1973 and February 1974, Skylab, a station cobbled together from surplus Apollo hardware, was manned by three-astronaut crews. Then it was abandoned, and in 1979 it was destroyed as it crashed to Earth uncontrolled. However, NASA and its political and industrial allies did not give up.

After the shuttle’s first flight in 1981, NASA set to work convincing Ronald Reagan to support a space-station program. In 1984 it succeeded, and with a classic Reagan quip to the cabinet about Queen Isabella (who, the story has it, hocked her jewels to fund Christopher Columbus’s trip to America), he authorized the venture.

President Reagan invited America’s friends and allies to join the program, which was called “Space Station Freedom.” NASA, moving at the speed of government, had accomplished nothing other than a set of design studies by 1993, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated. Under pressure from the New York Times, which was on a jihad against so-called “big science,” Clinton canceled the Superconducting Super Collider, which was then being built in Texas, and he nearly canceled the space station.

But with his usual sharp political instincts, President Clinton realized the space program had more supporters than particle physics, and that, in any case, he didn’t have much to fear from the physicists: They would, on the whole, burn Isaac Newtons’ and Albert Einsteins’ collected works in a bonfire in Harvard Yard before they would vote Republican. So he killed their program and kept NASA’s space station. At the same time, in order to satisfy his liberal base, he recast the space station as “outreach” to Russia.

Space Station Freedom was dead and buried, and in its place Clinton ordered NASA to work with Russia to build the International Space Station. NASA also agreed to fly a number of shuttle missions to the existing Russian orbital station Mir (the Russian word both for “world” and for “peace”). The first shuttle flight to Mir arrived in July 1995 and the final one in June 1998. All this was accompanied by large dollops of U.S. money, some of which disappeared into the pockets of various Russian officials. 

Many Americans actually believed that it was somehow helpful to treat Russia as an equal in space while paying its space professionals to remain engaged in theoretically civil space programs. The condescending U.S. and Western attitude toward ex-Soviet space officials didn’t make things easy. In particular, the officials resented NASA pressure to abandon Mir and let it crash, rather than allow it to be privatized by Walt Anderson, an eccentric American libertarian tycoon.

While most Russians may have been happy to drop the Communism that had impoverished their lives, they deeply and bitterly detested the loss of Moscow’s superpower status. Depending on the U.S. to keep their cherished national space program alive was galling, and this showed up in the nasty ways that the first American astronauts who trained at Star City outside Moscow were treated.

It may very well be that former NASA administrator Mike Griffin was thinking of that experience in Russia when, in 2006, he said: “On many occasions since assuming my role as administrator I have been asked about opportunities for ‘partnership’ when what is really being sought is American investment in the aerospace industries of other nations. I must be clear on this; ‘partnership’ for us is not a synonym for ‘helping NASA to spend its money.’”

Today, after the end of the shuttle program, and without an operational American manned-space-transport system, NASA pays Russia something like $70 million each time an American astronaut flies to the ISS onboard the Soyuz. If the U.S. has not by then built a new spacecraft to get people back and forth to the ISS, it will have to go negotiate a new deal when the current one expires at the end of 2017.

Aside from the ISS, the U.S. uses Russian-made rocket engines on two of its space-launch vehicles, the Antares, built by the Orbital Sciences Corporation, and, even more importantly, the Atlas V. It’s a lesson in how internationalism and cost control can override national-security interests.

After a series of failed military space launches, most notably the crash of a Titan IV with a very expensive spy satellite on board in 1998, the U.S. Air Force put in place the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. This was designed to give the military two separate and highly reliable rockets that could carry national-security payloads into orbit without relying on the unpredictable shuttle or on dangerous existing systems.

This program produced the all-American Delta IV family of launch vehicles, including the heavy rocket that is now used to put America’s biggest and most capable intelligence-gathering satellites into orbit, but it also created the Atlas V rocket, which has become the vehicle of choice for NASA’s science missions and is often used for military missions as well. However, the Atlas V relies for its effectiveness on a Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine, which is fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene. The engine is superbly efficient, a good example of how the Russians have come to produce genuinely world-class hardware.

As a precaution, the U.S. tries to keep at least two years’ worth of RD-180s on hand and has bought the rights to manufacture them domestically. Building rocket engines is, however, an art as well as a science, and the art part of manufacturing RD-180s was not transferred. According to one knowledgeable source, an American company did try to build a copy of the engine once, but it failed because of overheating. The Russians are masters of the metallurgy involved, and the U.S. has not, so far, made the effort to match their expertise.

So, today, the U.S. relies on Russia for human access to the ISS and for the rocket engines for one of its most important space-launch systems. This situation is largely due to the ultimate failure of the space-shuttle program, especially the Columbia disaster of February 2003. After decades of trying to do too much with too few resources, NASA has become, at least in some ways, an old and tired organization.

America does have some alternatives and could, with the right leadership, reduce its reliance on Russia. Back in the George W. Bush years, NASA implemented a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). This program sought to develop a pair of vehicles that could deliver cargo and fuel to the ISS on a commercial basis, bypassing NASA’s cumbersome regulatory and bureaucratic system. This program could be the key to bringing people into space without help from Russia.

Today, two companies have had notable success through COTS. SpaceX, based in California and controlled by Elon Musk, has already sent two Dragon capsules to resupply the station. Another one was scheduled to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket yesterday, but the launch has been postponed till Friday; it might yet be further delayed. Meanwhile, Orbital Sciences, based in Virginia, has successfully launched the first of its Cygnus cargo ships from Wallops Island on an Antares rocket, and hopes to launch another one in May or June.

Under a Bush-era “COTS D” plan, SpaceX hoped to sign a deal with NASA to carry people to and from the station, and the company has never lost sight of this goal. The Dragon capsule may have carried only cargo so far, but it is equipped with a porthole and will eventually be capable of carrying seven astronauts into orbit.

After the Obama administration canceled NASA’s return-to-the-moon Constellation program, it reworked the COTS D idea into the current Commercial Crew Program. This program is funding the development of three manned spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST capsule, and the Sierra Nevada mini-shuttle Dreamchaser. Of these, the Dragon is by far the furthest along. According to current plans, NASA and SpaceX hope to fly the first manned Dragon sometime in 2017. It might be possible to accelerate this program, but that would of course take money — from NASA’s already-reduced budget, from another agency, or through increased spending.

Meanwhile, the Air Force will have to find the money to replicate the RD-180. This will not be easy; it is estimated that $1 billion will be needed. It would be surprising if the job could be done in less than two years.

Fortunately, the SpaceX Falcon 9, which is in the process of being certified to carry national-security payloads into space, is available. It should even be cheaper than the Atlas V, through it still lacks the excellent safety and reliability of the older rocket. Shifting future Defense Department satellites from the Atlas to the Falcon can be done, but only if the decision to make the change is made soon; otherwise we will have to radically adjust our carefully planned launch program.

America’s space engagement with Russia has been, like so many other foreign-policy initiatives, beset by wishful thinking and by the desire to ignore the hard facts of power politics. No party or faction in Washington comes out of this looking good: not the George H. W. Bush realists who made Moscow’s space program dependent on U.S. funds; not the policymakers from the Clinton and Bush II eras, who embedded Russia into the ISS and the EELV programs; and certainly not the current administration, which seems to be even more lost in space than its predecessors.

— Taylor Dinerman is the author of Subway Lists and Other Writing from the iPhone Era and has written about space for the Wall Street Journal, the Space Review, and many other publications.