Crimea has been annexed, and the Kremlin isn’t impressed by meager American Anschluss sanctions. More sanctions are evidently coming, and they present an opportunity.
With the Space Shuttle retired, the United States is forced to pay Russia to ferry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Under the current contract, the U.S. buys seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for $65 million a pop. A new contract debuts in 2016, and includes a price hike: Over 18 months, the U.S. will shell out $424 million to buy rides for just six astronauts. Now, $424 million is getting to real money; a real sanction would be taking all of it and spending it domestically. Losing half a billion dollars won’t exactly cripple the Russian economy, but it’s enough to make a strong gesture.
Four new American spacecraft are almost ready. Two of them — the X-37 space plane from Boeing and the Dragon capsule from SpaceX — are already flying unmanned missions in Earth orbit. NASA’s in-house solution, the Orion capsule, makes its first unmanned flight in December. Getting one of our options — or all of them — ready by 2016 is only a matter of money and willpower. The will is already there, in spades. Private American firms like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada (which is developing a space shuttle called the Dream Chaser) are dying to get into space. NASA is dying to get back. And a little Russian rivalry will only increase everyone’s enthusiasm. Last time around, it put us on the Moon.
That leaves money. NASA wants to start using private American spacecraft for trips to the space station in 2017. That $424 million, divided among whichever companies agree to meet a new deadline, could push that up a year. Doubling or tripling that amount wouldn’t be a bad idea. A couple of billion dollars is a rounding error in the federal budget, and think what the investment gets us: Putin suffers a real rebuke for occupying part of a friendly democracy. Hundreds of millions of dollars stay in our economy instead of wandering off to Russia. The U.S. phases out ferry rides from the guys we beat in the space race. And best of all, America heads back to the final frontier, with a diversified spaceship portfolio designed for competition-driven pricing and quality.
Russia may retaliate by cutting off our supply of RD-180 engines. Imported Russian RD-180s power the first stage of the American Atlas V rocket; the Atlas V launches our military satellites. If Putin does threaten our rocket shipments, we can dip into the two-year store that has been stockpiled for just such an occasion — and two weeks ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk testified to Congress that his American-made Falcon rockets are ready to take over (for about $300 million less per flight than an Atlas launch costs taxpayers now).
Russia might also retaliate by withholding the Soyuz flights NASA has already booked through the end of 2015 (our next astronaut is supposed to go up next week). This is an unlikely outcome given Russia’s reliance on the U.S. and other partner democracies for the daily running and maintenance of the International Space Station — but it’s not impossible. If push comes to shove, though, the cost of two years without an American on the ISS is much less than the cost of an unfettered Russia recapturing Eastern Europe.
One other issue is the American who is on the space station now. But he has a Soyuz escape pod to get him home, and the Russians wouldn’t dare try to leave him in space. That’s the stuff real wars are made of.
Keeping that $424 million is a move that could easily be supported by both parties in both Houses — and it dovetails nicely with White House plans. Speaking for the president, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has said, “NASA is committed to launching U.S. astronauts aboard domestic spacecraft as soon as possible.” Speaking for himself, President Obama has said, “If Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine, we stand ready to impose further sanctions.”
Here, then, is a chance to kill those two birds with one stone, and save a lot of money in the process. It’s always nice to find a cloud with a silver lining. Not to sound starry-eyed, but think how many more we’ll find looking down from Earth orbit. (Crimea river, Putin.)
— Josh Gelernter is a writer in Connecticut.