Russian Influence Dominates U.S. Space Effort

You can’t blame this one on Donald Trump, his campaign, or his White House.

While hours of airtime, inches of column space and untold numbers of online posts have focused on the role of Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, what has gone largely overlooked is the ongoing influence of the Russian government and industry on American access to space.

Since 2011, when NASA closed the chapter on the Space Shuttle, the United States has been without a domestic means of launching astronauts into space. The capability gap has been filled by the Russians, who have sold seats aboard their launch vehicles to NASA so American access to the International Space Station could continue without severe interruption.

Competing efforts to bring human space travel capabilities back to the U.S. have hit delays, but offer hope that the nation’s reliance on Russian launches won’t be open-ended.

Aerospace giant Boeing Corporation is testing its Starliner capsule, a crew vehicle that from the outside looks like an updated sibling of the command/service module used in the Apollo program that put Americans on the moon. Upstart SpaceX, led by innovator and big dreamer Elon Musk, is testing Dragon 2, a manned capsule that will be lifted into space by a Falcon Heavy rocket, also a SpaceX product. Musk and his team hope to fly two passengers around the moon sometime in late 2018. Additionally, NASA’s own Space Launch System with the Lockheed Martin-built Orion spacecraft, is facing delays. Even with the delays, however, the space agency is studying the feasibility of putting humans on the very first test flight of the system.

Despite its promise, the Boeing entry into the effort to regain domestic manned-mission capabilities has a series flaw: the engines of the Atlas V launch rocket are made in Russia.

This isn’t a new problem.

Last year, the U.S. Air Force was directed to spend $540 million on Russian rocket engines for satellite launches. The RD-180 engines were bought for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. ULA is the primary Air Force contractor for satellite launches and since Boeing owns a stake in the company, so that’s why the Atlas V is the heavy lifter for the Starliner capsule that NASA is interested in.

NASA already relies on the Atlas V for some launches, but if the agency awards a manned space flight contract to Boeing instead of proceeding ahead with its own SLS, or betting on rising innovation over at SpaceX, it will mean that a firm with close ties to the Russian government will have an integral role in U.S. manned spaceflight. While some could argue that such an outcome at least reduces U.S. dependence on Russian space efforts, it doesn’t mean the nation is actually free to pursue its own space program without the consent of another power.

With the Air Force relying on Russian rocket engines to launch satellites that are vital to national security, NASA currently outsourcing manned spaceflight for American astronauts to Russia and relying on Russian rocket engines for domestic cargo launches, and Boeing relying on the same Russian engines to power its effort to get Americans back into space on American rockets, significant portions of the U.S. space effort are vulnerable to Russian politics.

A recent independent safety panel found flaws with Boeing’s reliance on the controversial Russian engines. According to an industry news source:

Starliner will initially launch with Atlas V, powered by her RD-180 main engine. As such, the certification issue is being worked on by Boeing, which is part of ULA.

“One of the top Boeing risks is the RD-180 engine certification. The engine has a long history, but it has been difficult to get detailed design information for certification,” added the ASAP [Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel] minutes.

The safety panel went on to blame the engine’s foreign provenance for the lack of design documentation.

Meanwhile at NASA, the agency is pondering whether or not it should spent $373 million to buy more seats aboard Russian launches. The deal would keep Russia in charge of delivering U.S. astronauts to space potentially until 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported in early March:

In an unusual twist, the latest seats eyed by NASA would be purchased from Boeing, which acquired them as part of a settlement with Russian space authorities in an unrelated legal dispute. But that fact isn’t likely to do much to insulate NASA from Capitol Hill criticism about problems ending reliance on Moscow.

Boeing stands to receive an average of nearly $75 million per trip, or about $8 million more per seat than those purchased directly from Russian entities.

So while Boeing is building a launch system that relies on Russian engines, it stands to turn a decent profit by selling to NASA seats it acquired on Russian launches.

If Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election is an outrage, the country’s current vice grip over manned U.S. spaceflight should certainly merit scrutiny from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Alas, when powerful interests write campaign checks such investigations become less attractive.

Trump’s NATO Ultimatum: Spend More (Buy American)!

Vice President Pence went to Brussels on Monday to throw down the gauntlet. The United States expects NATO members to spend more on their military. And the U.S. defense industry, of course, is open for business.

NATO members promised in 2014 to spend two percent of GDP on defense. So far, only the U.S., Greece, the U.K., Estonia and Poland meet that goal (per Wikipedia).

Pence minced no words, according to remarks published by the Washington Examiner. “The president of the United States and the American people expect our allies to keep their word and to do more in our common defense, and the president expects real progress by the end of 2017.”

“It is time for actions, not words,” Pence added. “And if you don’t have a plan, get one.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg offered no resistance.

I fully support what has been underlined by President Trump and by Vice President Pence today, the importance of burden sharing, I expect all allies to make good on the promise that we made in 2014 to increase defense spending and to make sure to have a fairer burden of sharing.

Could U.S. defense businesses profit from Trump’s “fair share” policy? It’s very possible. For example, Spain would need to spend an additional $16 billion to fulfill its NATO promise. Spain maintains 86 F/A 18 Hornets, along with its Eurofighters Typhoons.  The Hornets are aging and could be replaced by Super Hornets–at $98 million a pop.

And then there’s Canada, which also has the misfortune of being a signatory to NAFTA. Another $17 billion from our closest ally would be a nice feather in Trump’s cap.

The NATO “fair share” idea has been an issue since well before Trump, but in taking it beyond words, the president has made it known that American defense industry is open for business. And with over 20 NATO countries committed to spend billions more, it can’t help but benefit U.S. companies.

The defense industry is well aware of this. Boeing stock has increased 23.6 percent since the election. It’s now the highest it’s ever been. Lockheed Martin is also at a near-all-time high; the day after Trump’s election it soared by 11.7 percent and never looked back.

For all Trump’s bluster, the message “spend more!” is being more well received by NATO than the hand-wringers predicted. It’s good for global security in the age of ISIS, and it’s good for America.

More Republicans Prefer The Visible Hand Of Fascism To Free Markets

It’s downright dangerous for Republicans to give Trump a mandate to  manipulate companies. At best, it’s corporate cronyism run amuck. At worst, it’s the seeds of actual Fascism.

I long for the days when Republicans were for free trade, less government, and letting the market determine winners and losers. You know, like a year ago. Now all that has changed with the rise of Trumpism.

Ben Shapiro noted this in a tweet citing two sources showing GOP voters reacting with elation over Trump’s Carrier deal.

Now, as President Obama says when he’s about to obfuscate, let me be clear: One deal made by a sitting governor who happens to be vice president-elect, and cemented by quasi promises from the president-elect (who has no authority to make them yet), does not a policy make. Therefore I refuse to jump to conclusions about anything Trump will do as policy–other than to say he’ll do whatever he thinks will work and encourage more people to love him.

However, the reaction by Republicans, who should show some level of concern for this blatant line-crossing of the chief executive to be into corporate cronyism, is quite shocking.

More Republicans are okay with the president and vice president playing tonsil hockey with private businesses than Democrats or independents.

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Something is wrong with calling the GOP “conservative” when more Democrats recognize the undesirability of the executive branch singling out companies to negotiate deals on behalf of workers. (Of course, many Democrats love unions and have no problem with public sector unions calling the shots, or having Congress pass onerous laws that predetermine outcome-based winners and losers based on social goals, but that’s a different horse to slaughter.)

Corporate cronyism (I won’t call it “crony capitalism,” because it’s not capitalism at all) is bad policy, unless you think it’s okay for companies to worm their way into the White House to make the best deal for the CEO or shareholders, directly negotiated with the CEO of America, Inc., while workers, consumers, and other stakeholders lose market power. Ask any Comcast customer how they like the cable franchise system. Or ask Aereo how they like losing in the Supreme Court against Big TV.

Whipped into a frenzy of MAGA, support for such lofty and ethereal notions such as a free market economy and government-interference-free capitalism has flagged among Americans–especially self-identified Republicans and conservatives.

In the weekly Economist/YouGov tracking poll, 57 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement “The free market has been sorting [the economy] out and America’s been losing.” And 55 percent who agreed identified as “conservative.” Those numbers were higher than Democrats and independents (33 and 38 percent respectively) and liberals and moderates (31 and 38).

That’s just crazy. Even given the bias for/against Trump, conservatives should realize that it’s the restraint of a free market that is causing America to lose, not the other way around.

It’s downright dangerous for Republicans and conservatives to give Trump a mandate to bribe, browbeat, threaten and otherwise manipulate companies into doing his bidding. At best, it’s corporate cronyism run amuck. At worst, it’s the seeds of actual Fascism, where corporate resources are folded into a government political plan for production.

And don’t think Trump isn’t listening to the hoots and cheers of approval. Just look at his latest tweets:

When Trump tweeted that he would cancel the order with Boeing for the new Air Force One 747, Boeing’s stock took a tumble.

His explanation: “The plane is totally out of control,” adding, “We want Boeing to make a lot of money but not that much money.” In what universe does the POTUS and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces get to decide how much money Boeing gets to make? I understand that wartime contracts for goods production specified the profit margin on government procurement, but this isn’t a war economy. Boeing can bid like any other company.

Corporate America is watching and listening very closely.

“Some of us may share our turn in the bull’s-eye,” Caterpillar Inc.Chief Executive Doug Oberhelman told reporters on a conference call Tuesday.

Nice. American public company CEO’s are now lining up to play footsie with the president-elect before Jan. 20–and after.

Senior advisers to Mr. Trump have signaled that he plans to continue intervening in issues that pertain to specific businesses as he sees fit once he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

If you thought Solyndra, Solar City (and other Elon Musk businesses like SpaceX and Tesla), and President Obama’s favorite green charity cases were egregious examples of government picking winners and losers, strap in for the ride, because with Trump you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Trump Is Right About the Boeing Contract for Air Force One, But…

Donald Trump wants to cancel the contract with Boeing for a new Air Force One because of cost concerns. Trump is right to be concerned about the cost overruns, but wrong to cancel the project.

There is some ancillary criticism out there that Trump’s tweet caused Boeing’s stock to go down, but if word leaked about Trump’s concerns, which would have happened, the stock would have gone down too. That seems to be a small concern.

It is great to have Trump concerned about these costs. Boeing and Lockheed both have problems with costs and I hope Trump will actually cancel the F-35, which is loved by lobbyists and those paid to love it and hated by anyone and everyone who actually cares about the future of American air superiority.

But the President actually does need a new Air Force One.

You may not realize this, but contrary to popular opinion and movies, in 2001, Air Force One did not have the technical sophistication for President Bush to maintain stable lines of communication after the 9/11 disaster. He could put in a secure call to Putin, but he could not maintain secure lines with the White House or others domestically. All of that technology had to be shoehorned in to Air Force One later.

Likewise, the airframe of the existing Air Force One is old and repairs are going to become increasingly more expensive. As technology advances, it is going to be increasingly hard to add those new and necessary technologies to the present Air Force One.

The newer Air Force One plan, based on the 747-800, will provide a superior aircraft with more upgrade flexibility for future Presidents and better communications systems.

Costs need to be contained and good for Trump if his tweet forces those cost containments. But the President, whoever he may be, needs a new Air Force One.