Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Russian Roulette

Russian defense and space minister Dmitry Rogozin claims Russia will leave the International Space Station partnership in 2020. Image source: Wikipedia.

An article posted on Russia Today quotes Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin as saying his nation is prepared to take a number of actions against American space interests.

It should be noted that this article is only on the English-language version of Russia Today, not the Russian version. Russia Today is widely viewed as a propaganda organ of the Russian government, so the absence of this story on the Russian language site could suggest it's only intended for U.S. audiences, not for domestic consumption.

The article quotes Rogozin as saying Russia will terminate U.S. global positioning satellite (GPS) stations in Russia if his nation is not granted similar access in the United States. The Russian GLONASS is an alternative to the U.S. GPS system, and one May 2013 review suggests it might even be superior.

But the GLONASS constellation is launched by Russian rockets, and has been delayed by the failure of Russian Proton launches. After the last failure in July 2013, Rogozin blamed his predecessors and in October sacked Roscosmos director Vladimir Popovkin.

According to Space Safety Magazine:

What is certain though, is that the loss of the three GLONASS-M satellites will affect the entire navigational constellation in the near future. Just before the failed launch, GLONASS-M satellite #728 failed prematurely, with 2.5 years of its operational life still remaining. Russia promptly re-established the global coverage by putting one of the four orbiting reserve satellites into service. However, according to ITAR-TASS, these reserve spacecraft have all expired their life cycles, having been in service for more than 60 months.

The fact that Rogozin chose the English-language version of Russia Today to send this message reminds me of the old days during the Soviet era when the government used English language broadcasts to signal messages for the U.S. they didn't want their own people to hear. Today's Internet-connected world is different, of course, but I'm struck by the similarity.

My guess is that Rogozin is signalling that granting Russian access to GPS stations in the U.S. might help defuse current tensions — or it could just be a crude power play.

I also have to wonder if the GLONASS negotiations are being held up by the U.S. due to President Obama's March 20, 2014 executive order restricting deals with Russian officials who personally control or profit from Russian business dealings.

Rogozin also said that he would restrict United Launch Alliance Atlas V use of Russian RD-180 engines produced by NPO Energomash. “Without guarantees that our engines are used for non-military spacecraft launches only, we won’t be able to supply them to the US,” Rogozin said according to the quote.

NPO Energomash is a liquid-fueled rocket engine manufacturer that goes back to the late 1940s. The RD-180 is manufactured for the Atlas V through a partnership between NPO Energomash and Pratt & Whitney called RD AMROSS.

Because the engines are manufactured in Russia, most jobs associated with the RD-180 would seem to be lost in Russia, not in the U.S. — which may explain why there's no version of the story on the Russian-language version of Russia Today.

Earlier this month, the House Armed Services Committee approved legislation to provide seed money for developing a domestic replacement for the RD-180. The final version of H.R. 4435 contains $197 million for “RD-180 replacement” (see page 289 in the document, page 291 in the PDF) but lacks earlier specific language which stated that the Defense Department “should develop a next-generation liquid rocket engine that is made in the United States, meets the requirements of the national security space community, is developed by not later than 2019, is developed using full and open competition, and is available for purchase by all space launch providers of the United States.”

Click the arrow to watch the March 5, 2014 Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Hearing on national security space launch programs.

During a March 5, 2014 hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, United Launch Alliance CEO Michael Gass stated that ULA has a two-year supply of RD-180s, with more on order.

Even though specific language no longer exists in the legislation, and it's yet to be passed by the full House much less the Senate, it's clear that the U.S. intends to find a domestic alternative to the RD-180. So this appears to me like Rogozin writing off a dying market, as the RD-180 is not used by Russia or by any other nation.

Rogozin also announced that Roscosmos would not extend its International Space Station partnership, which ends in 2020.

This message was posted by Rogozin on Twitter:

“@fka_roscosmos doesn't plan to continue cooperation with the US on the ISS after 2020”

Rogozin then suggested that he would explore a space alliance with China:

“On May 19th on the eve of Russia-China Summit we'll discuss prospective projects of our bilateral cooperation in space with our partners in Beijing @fka_roscosmos”

I was rather amused by this, as in their long histories Russia and China rarely have enjoyed a friendly relationship.

In a 2006 presentation to the Conflict Studies Research Centre at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Dr. Vladimir Paramonov and Dr. Aleksei Strokov wrote, “The history of relations between Russia and China, especially from the middle of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century, is a story of cyclical swings between periods of antagonism and periods of rapprochement.”

Present-day relations between the two countries are difficult. The increasing pace of cooperation in the political and military technology areas is not matched by mutually advantageous economic arrangements, so that what looks like a period of rapprochement could easily come to a sudden halt for a number of reasons, as has happened several times in the past.

In March 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during a document-signing ceremony in Moscow. Image source: Radio Free Europe.

In August 2013, Radio Free Europe reported that Russia and China “are enjoying a distinct warming in relations.”

They share a border running 4,300 kilometers, but have long been divided by mistrust.

However, if the past several months are any indication, China and Russia are enjoying a distinct warming in relations. A historic oil deal in June and a major joint military exercise in July are the clearest signs of a deepening partnership. Analysts say suspicions are likely to linger, along with outright competition in Central Asia. But economic and geopolitical considerations -- including the urge to counterbalance the United States — are bringing the countries increasingly in line.

And I think that's what's going on with Rogozin's plan to end its ISS participation.

As I wrote in September 2012, Roscomos is well aware of its technological inferiority compared to the U.S. space program. That program includes not just NASA, but also the NewSpace industry — commercialization of access to low Earth orbit.

After returning from his six-month tour of duty on the ISS, cosmonaut Gennady Padalka lamented the state of Roscosmos' technology compared to NASA robotics and the newly arrived SpaceX Dragon cargo ship.

Later that month, now-departed Roscomos General Director Vladimir Popovkin stated publicly in September 2012 that NewSpace could put Roscosmos out of business:

[Roscosmos General Director Vladimir] Popovkin validated Padalka's assessment of the lack of technological progress by warning that Western advances into privatized space launch services would soon drive Russia out of the last corner of the international space industry where it had any standing. "We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures."

Recent events in Las Vegas only underscore the inferior position of the Russian space industry.

Earlier this month, Boeing and Bigelow Aerospace held a joint media event to display their NewSpace wares — a CST-100 commercial crew capsule that by the end of the decade will deliver customers to Bigelow expandable habitats in low Earth orbit.

Click the arrow to watch the KLAS-TV Channel 8 Las Vegas report on the Boeing-Bigelow event.

In an April 15 Senate Space Subcommittee hearing, Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks said the White House announcement in January extending the ISS to 2024 (pending Congressional approval) effectively countered Chinese efforts to find microgravity research business for their modest space station planned for the end of the decade.

Just as NanoRacks has customers that are commercial organizations as well as space agencies, it also has space agencies that are competitors. One prime example is the Chinese Space Agency, which is today marketing its space station services to the international community, including my customers. One international client was just about ready to ‘jump ship’ to work with China on a multi-year program. What stopped this client was the U.S. commitment to operate the ISS until at least 2024.

But the Chinese space station program is already today a formidable competitor for NanoRacks, and we are committed to assuring prices low-enough, and services good enough, to thwart their efforts, not because they are Chinese but because that is the nature of commercial competition.

Faced with a lack of resources and technology to maintain their own end of the ISS, Russia appears to pinning its hopes on joining the Chinese space station — which I think is very unlikely.

I can't imagine the Chinese trusting a belligerent partner that showed it couldn't be trusted in its last international partnership.

Even so, once the Bigelow habitats are operational, the United States will have a more affordable option for microgravity research, with Vectran habitats that are believed to be far more resistant to radiation than the aluminum and steel of 20th Century designs.

NASA is the ISS managing partner. It controls the power, the communications and the electronics. All Russia controls — for now — is crewed transportation.

The U.S. commercial crew vehicles should be operational in three years, assuming Congress doesn't cut the funding again. Elon Musk of SpaceX recently said he hopes to have his first crewed flight from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in two years. Boeing and Sierra Nevada are right behind him. SpaceX and Boeing have formal partnerships with Bigelow, and Sierra Nevada is rumored to be interested as well.

Russian cargo ships periodically boost the ISS' altitude, but other vehicles can do it too. The European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle Johannes Kepler raised the ISS 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) in 2011. The station's gyroscopes can also be used for minor adjustments, as well as thrusters on the Russian segment.

Informal comments by NASA officials have suggested that the agency might seek to privatize the ISS in the mid-2020s as its emphasis moves to the Space Launch System and human deep space exploration, although NASA could lease Bigelow habitats to perform the low Earth orbit research currently done on the ISS.

Despite Mr. Rogozin's statements, the bottom line is that Russia's space program is in such sad shape that any threats are largely meaningless. The United States is fully capable of walking away from its partnership with Russia, especially once the commercial crew vehicles are operational.

I doubt Russia would abrogate the current transportation agreement, because at $72 million a seat it brings in badly needed revenue for Roscosmos. Russia would lose not only the U.S., but the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada too.

No one would fly with Russia any more. They would be a space pariah.

And if China wants to do business with Russia ... Good luck with that.

1 comment:

  1. If Russia wants to make a move, now is the time. But I wonder if their shots are just from a harmless air gun.