The U.S. and Russia: No Better Together in Space Than on Land
The history of a failed engagement

A Russian Soyuz TMA-6 spacecraft approaches the International Space Station.


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.


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