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.

Senate Supports SpaceX vs Russia In DoD Rocket Wars

For the past few years, there’s been a cold war going on…between SpaceX, entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rocket company and the Russians, who supply all the engines for Department of Defense national security launches.

In April, 2014, Musk announced that SpaceX was filing suit against the government for its sole source contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) using Russian-sourced RD-180 engines.

The latest Air Force launch contract dated to December 2013 guarantees the “block buy” purchase of 36 rocket cores from ULA for national security launches for the DOD, NRO and other government agencies, at a significantly reduced cost compared to earlier contracts. A further 14 cores were to be awarded on a competitive basis, including bids from SpaceX and others who seek to gain Air Force certification.

This has come to a head with the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) approved by the Senate and now being considered by the House.

While the Air Force and Defense Department leadership agree that the U.S. should transition to an affordable, domestically-produced alternative to the RD-180 as soon as is practical, the Senate NDAA authorizes just nine engines, five of which have already been committed to other missions. This shortage would hinder critical U.S. military access to space until a U.S.-produced alternative is ready several years from now.

The question comes down to this: Should the government fast track the SpaceX Falcon 9, with just nine launches under its belt, against the proven Delta IV and Atlas V rockets which use the Russian RD-180 engines? The Delta and Atlas rockets are manufactured by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing (that, between the two of them, make just about everything the U.S. buys that flies). The latest versions of those rockets have a nearly flawless success record.

Arizona Sen. John McCain has tried to cut down America’s reliance on Russian engines for several years, and finally got his way with the Senate bill. Military contacts tend to be fairly–let’s call them “chippy”–when billions of dollars are on the line. It might be about national security and self-reliance, but it’s also about money.

Setting aside the politics for a moment, there appears to be a consensus in Congress and the Defense Department that the military should stop using the RD-180 engine. The real questions are: how quickly should the transition occur, which alternatives should be used, and how much will it cost? Attempting to cut the military off from the RD-180 too soon risks creating a self-fulfilling prophesy: a gap in military launch capabilities. On the other hand, as long as the military continues to buy RD-180 engines it is undermining U.S. sanctions and extending a window of vulnerability Russian President Vladimir Putin could exploit.

[Source: DefenseOne]

ULA has been vocal in its opposition to McCain.

“This guy right here, John McCain, who basically doesn’t like us; he’s like this with Elon Musk,” [ULA Engineering Vice President Brett] Tobey said during a March 15 presentation at the University of Colorado-Boulder, according to audio posted by Space News. “So Elon Musk says, ‘Why don’t you guys go, why don’t you go after United Launch Alliance and see if you can get that engine to be outlawed?’ ”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter requested the Pentagon’s Inspector General to open an investigation into the Tobey’s remarks, resulting in the ULA VP’s resignation. Certainly Musk wants his share of the lucrative DoD launch contract, but Tobey isn’t totally wrong either.

On one hand, cutting off the RD-180 engines too soon may leave the DoD without a tested, approved rocket to launch critical national security assets into orbit. That would be a bad thing. But on the other hand, giving Vladimir Putin control over whether we launch those assets would also be a bad thing, nyet?

This battle has been brewing for a while, and some in the rocket community believe that if the Russians are selling rocket engines, we should continue to buy them, while working out a transition. But McCain may also be right, in that without a knife to their throats, the DoD won’t be in any rush to move toward another solution, which–with current budget restrictions and the tendency of defense contractors to move at the speed of snot in January when milking contracts–are years away.

Limiting the RD-180 purchases (though to a larger number than the 9 the current Senate bill authorizes) may be the best way to get things moving a bit faster. Or we may find ourselves kneeling at Musk’s feet when the Russians cut us off–or worse, dropping a billion dollar defense satellite into the ocean.