Thursday, April 3, 2014

American Exceptionalism

Russian defense and space minister Dmitry Rogozin says Russia has no space interests with NASA outside of the International Space Station. Image source: Wikipedia.

NASA issued a statement yesterday announcing they have suspended relations with the Russian space agency Roscosmos — except for the International Space Station.

Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.

Of particular interest is the next section, which bashes Congress for underfunding the commercial crew program.

NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration's for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches — and the jobs they support — back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we're now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It's that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America — and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

A November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report determined that Congress had cut commercial crew funding by 62% from the President's request over Fiscal Years 2011-2013. For the current Fiscal Year 2014, the program was cut by about 15% from the White House request. broke the story yesterday morning when it published an email from NASA Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Michael O'Brien notifying employees of the suspension:

This suspension includes NASA travel to Russia and visits by Russian Government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email, and teleconferences or videoconferences. At the present time, only operational International Space Station activities have been excepted.

As an example of the interesting times we live in, Russian defense and space minister Dmitry Rogozin responded to the suspension with this tweet:

NASA suspends cooperation with Roscosmos (Rus Fed Space Agency) apart from work on the ISS ... Yet, apart from over the ISS we didn't cooperate with NASA anyway)

If Rogozin is right, then the suspension would appear to be largely symbolic.

It also leads me to wonder if someone in the White House sees the crisis as an opportunity to coerce Congress into properly funding commercial crew.

The New York Times report on the suspension concludes with this speculation:

The decision to suspend the relationship with the Russian space agency is unusual for several reasons, not least because keeping the space enterprises alive has long been a symbol of Washington’s commitment to an apolitical working relationship with Moscow. Breaking it, some government officials have feared, would invite the Russians to retaliate by suspending nuclear inspections under the new Start treaty — inspections that have continued despite the differences over Ukraine.

But the Obama administration’s decision was made easier by the dwindling nature of the nation’s space program. Grand plans for international space programs have largely withered, as the space shuttle program has ground to an end. “There’s a sense that we don’t need the space relationships the way we once did,” one senior government scientist said, “because we don’t have as much going on in space.”

The authors are fundamentally wrong about a “dwindling” space program. As I wrote in September 2012, the objective is to create a new economy here in the U.S. based on opening low Earth orbit to the private sector.

The U.S. space program isn't NASA. It's NASA plus all its private-sector partners.

An example of a Golden Spike lunar expedition using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy as the launch booster. Image source: The Golden Spike Company.

SpaceX hopes to deliver commercial satellites to orbit for one-third the cost of its competition. Bigelow Aerospace will deliver an expandable habitat module to the ISS in 2015 aboard a SpaceX Dragon, a demonstration version of the larger modules scheduled to launch starting in 2017. The Golden Spike Company is developing a lunar lander for commercial lunar flights around 2020, possibly using SpaceX and Bigelow technologies.

U.S. space technology is so far ahead of Russia that in September 2012 Roscosmos General Director Vladimir Popovkin warned that SpaceX and other commercial launch services could drive Roscosmos out of business. “We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures,” he said. Popovkin was sacked a year later.

So despite the opinion of the Times writers and an anonymous scientist, the U.S. space program is alive and well, thank you very much.

The Russian space program is not.

Which may be why the Obama administration feels it has the upper hand here. Russia needs its partner spacefaring nations a lot more than we need them.

If Russia cuts Western access to the ISS, then they have no business.

Russian space policy expert James Oberg wrote on March 3 that “the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia's orbital hardware couldn't function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.”

And although Rogozin was talking about NASA and Roscosmos relations, he didn't mention United Launch Alliance use of Russian RD-180 engines on the Atlas V.

I wrote in August 2013 about a Russia Today article reporting that “Russia’s Security Council is reportedly considering a ban on supplying the US with powerful RD-180 rocket engines for military communications satellites as Russia focuses on building its own new space launch center, Vostochny, in the Far East.”

The article included this quote from Ivan Moiseyev, scientific head of the Space Policy Institute.

In my opinion, stopping the export of rocket engines to the US is stupid, as we would suffer financial and reputational losses. The US would not suffer much and would definitely continue with military space launches, while Russia would have to stop production of the RD-180, because no one else needs the RD-180 engine.

Click the arrow to watch the March 5, 2014 Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on YouTube.

ULA's vulnerability was the topic of a March 5 Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing that included both ULA's CEO Michael Gass and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

Mr. Musk hammered on ULA's RD-180 reliance, noting that SpaceX built its own engines here in the United States.

Yesterday six Senators urged the Defense Department to open launch vehicle procurement to competition beyond the ULA monopoly.

In my opinion, the administration's suspension of NASA / Roscosmos relations is a risk, but a calculated one. Russia's space economy is especially vulnerable, and that may be why the administration feels it can use space relations as leverage. The White House has proposed to extend ISS operations through at least 2024, but Bigelow habitats should be operational long before then. SpaceX hopes to have its first crewed test flights in two years, with Boeing and Sierra Nevada close behind.

Mr. Rogozin and his boss Vladimir Putin certainly know the Russian space economy is living on borrowed time. The message the administration is sending is, “We really don't need you.” The U.S. space program is exceptional, and Russia knows it.

The question is if Congress knows it.

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