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.