Dmitry Astakhov / Government Press Service / RIA-Novosti / AP

U.S. sanctions on Russia threaten America’s space ambitions

Both NASA and private spaceflight industry face consequences for Ukraine face-off

May 30, 2014 12:00AM ET

U.S. sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine are weighing most heavily not on Earth-bound assets but on opportunities in outer space.  

Unless the Obama administration can find a way to lift the sanctions soon, the rich prospects for America’s nascent private spaceflight industry may fade into dreams of what could have been. What’s worse, the immediate national security needs of the U.S. will suffer.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve spoken with spaceflight analysts who report an ever-darkening tale of what Bill Harwood, the CBS News space analyst, calls “tit-for-tat diplomacy.” The trouble started when, weeks into the Ukraine crisis, NASA announced it was ceasing contacts with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, except for the joint venture of the International Space Station (ISS). This was not at first seen as a major blow, since the ISS is almost all that NASA and Roscosmos share. However, the two agencies need to work closely together to maintain the station; and NASA’s astronauts are entirely dependent upon the Russian workhorse, the Soyuz capsule and rocket, to travel to and from low-Earth orbit.

Stunningly, the Obama administration put Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister for space and defense, on a sanctions list. The Kremlin retaliated soon after. Rogozin announced that Russia would cease selling the RD-180 engine to the U.S. for military payloads. The RD-180 is used by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership, which in turn produces the workhorse of the U.S. launch fleet, the Atlas V.

Loss of the RD-180 is hard on immediate plans. Not only does NASA need the Atlas V to launch its major probes, such as the Mars rover Curiosity, but the Defense Department also uses the Atlas to launch communications satellites. There are only 16 such engines in U.S. possession, about two years’ worth at the present launch scheduling.  Harwood told me that to replace the RD-180 will require a major appropriation, perhaps $1 billion, and five to six years of development. The lone alternative for now is the much more expensive ULA Delta 4 launcher.

Rogozin’s most threatening retaliation, in mid-May, was against the ISS. He commented without detail that Roscosmos was not looking to extend the contract with the U.S. after 2020. NASA had hopes of sharing the ISS until 2024, if not 2028. Without the ISS, NASA has no manned space program and no alternative until completion of the Space Launch System, now under construction and due to fly an unmanned test no sooner than late 2017. The best case right now is that the SLS can fly a manned mission in 2021.

“The U.S. side is more dependent on Russian hardware than the other way around,” Harwood observed.

Simply circling the Earth’s orbit and earning something on cosmonaut delivery to space — that’s not enough for this great space country.

Dmitry Rogozin

Russian space and defense deputy prime minister

St. Petersburg

The breakdown between the two premier space agencies continued at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum from May 22 to 24.

Popular Mechanics’ contributing editor Joe Pappalardo moderated a panel titled “Early Days in the Next Generation of Space,” as he had done in 2011. 

Three years ago, NASA sent a representative; there was much talk of private space opportunities, and there were happy Americans in the audience. This year, however, Pappalardo was the only American in the room and, he told me from St. Petersburg, there was “almost a pall” because of the Ukraine crisis. 

The panel members were Russian space heavyweights, including Roscosmos’ Deputy Director Sergei Saveliev and General Director Igor Komarov of the new super-space-manufacturing enterprise United Rocket and Space Corp. European private industry representation was also telling, with Airbus’ executive vice president of its defense and space division as well as Thales Alenia Space’s president, Jean-Loïc Galle. Pappalardo told me that the Europeans are outspoken in saying they aim to grow closer to Russia despite the sanctions and the troubles with NASA.

The cold war in space was most chilling because of who was not present. NASA, according to Pappalardo, was “a very conspicuous absence.” Much worse for the future of private spaceflight development in the U.S., neither CEO Elon Musk of Space X nor CEO George Whitesides of Virgin Galactic showed up, although their names were on the original guest list.

The White House has said it obliged NASA and U.S. private executives to avoid the St. Petersburg forum because attendance would send an “inappropriate message.” Pappalardo observed of the contradiction, “Their messaging from the White House is, ‘Treat Russia like a pariah state,’ when the reality in the spaceflight industry is, they’re the leaders.”

Spaceflight news got even worse when Roscosmos’ Saveliev announced at the forum on May 22 that the Russian government will soon change its space policy to move away from the ISS and its partnership with the U.S. and toward partnerships with other nations. 

A few days later, on May 27, Deputy Prime Minister Rogozin announced unambiguously that Russia would end its ISS contracts in 2020: “Simply circling the Earth’s orbit and earning something on cosmonaut delivery to space — that’s not enough for this great space country.” Rogozin also indicated that Russia will shut down the 10 U.S. GPS stations sited across Russia’s time zones unless the U.S. permits Russia to build similar stations on U.S. territory. Rogozin said that the new space policy will be announced mid-June, adding, “As for our manned flight plans beyond 2020 — we would probably have new projects with an expanded number of partners.”

During President Vladimir Putin’s mid-May visit to Shanghai , Russia and China signed a new space cooperation agreement, with details to be announced late in June. Pappalardo told me that Russia is also looking to partner with India’s fledgling spaceflight industry, and that the Russians were enthusiastic about the attendance at the forum of India’s private Earth2Orbit CEO, Susmita Mohanty.

The Ukrainian turmoil will continue unpredictably in a corner of Europe that has not known stability since before there was a United States of America. The U.S. genius for innovation in space exploration has nothing to do with who’s “messaging” in Kiev or Moscow or Washington. An American foreign policy that treats competition in outer space as a weapon of diplomacy to settle conflicts in Europe is without common sense.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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NASA, Space, Ukraine Crisis

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