Lost in Space

The Crimean Crisis highlights America’s Dangerous Dependence on Russian Space Technology.

The Crimea crisis, the sharpest conflict in decades between the United States and Russia, is raising concerns about the future of the U.S. space program. The cooperation in space that Washington and Moscow fostered in the quarter-century since the Cold War ended is now at risk of unraveling. A return to the Cold War would be very expensive and damaging to both countries, as the plunge in the Russian stock market indicates. But when it comes to space, the partner with more to lose may well be the United States.

The Atlas V rocket is operated by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of aerospace giants Lockheed Martin and Boeing. This vehicle launches several satellites every year in the military’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, including one to lift off March 25 and another in May. Each of these launches delivers satellites critical to U.S. national security. However, the Atlas V notably relies on the Russian-built RD-180 for its main propulsion. Given Russia’s recent actions, the supply of this engine may well come to a sudden halt, compromising national security.

Purchasing these engines is clearly controversial, especially given the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations in recent years. There are reports that Russia has been mulling a ban over the export of these engines. While U.S. lawmakers have been exploring alternatives, the present crisis between Washington and Moscow urgently highlights this need. The United Launch Alliance insists that it can make the same engine domestically but has yet to come up with answers about how long doing so would take or how much it would cost. More importantly, it makes one wonder why the alliance has not made those engines itself yet.

The United States “cannot assure access to space when it relies on President [Vladimir] Putin’s permission” for American purchases of the Russian-built RD-180 engine, said Elon Musk, the CEO of the California-based SpaceX. Musk is pushing the Air Force to launch some of its satellites on his company’s Falcon 9 rocket. The United Launch Alliance responded that it is in possession of approximately two years’ supply of the Russian engines, even in the event of a supply disruption. However, missions are generally contracted two years in advance of a launch. This means that if Russia were to halt supply of the engine today, United Launch Alliance would be unable to fly any new missions designated for the Atlas V contracted from today on out. This comes as a particular challenge, as just recently the Air Force awarded the alliance a contract for missions extending five years into the future.

There is hope, though. The Ukraine crisis reminds us that the United States need not outsource its capability to get to space. The United Launch Alliance already operates its Delta IV rocket that uses American rocket engines and can actually launch more payloads than the Atlas V. Private actors such as California-based SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corporation are also viable options to launch for the Department of Defense. In fact, recent statements by Air Force officials indicate that SpaceX will be fully certified to compete in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program this year. At a time when Congress and industry frequently bemoan the decline of the U.S. industrial base, this RD-180 crisis highlights that the nation has a win-win opportunity to bring thousands of high-paying jobs back from overseas and end Russia’s stranglehold on our ability to access space.

As the U.S. National Space Strategy rightly notes, greater international cooperation is important for the U.S. space program — but cooperation should not be mistaken for dependence. The current crisis with Russia underscores the U.S. need to maintain true, domestic assured access to space, and we can make that a reality now.

Related Experts: Bharath Gopalaswamy