Brian Sikma at The Resurgent has some less than cheerful news this week about US plans to continue purchasing rocket engines from Russia for America’s space launch needs. In the short term we’re talking about a dozen and a half engines with a price tag of more than half a billion dollars. Given our current relationship with the Russians and their use of, er… other engines to play games with our Navy, it’s understandable that some folks are upset about this boon for Vladimir Putin.
The United States Air Force will continue to rely on Russian built rocket engines to loft satellites into orbit thanks to a decision by the House Armed Services Committee early Thursday morning. Originally, the Air Force wanted 9 Russian-made engines for satellite launches in the near future, but in a voice vote reported by The Hill, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado got the committee to approve the purchase of 18 engines for a total price tag of $540 million.
Why U.S. taxpayers are sending $540 million to a Russian defense company controlled (both politically and financially) by Vladimir Putin at time when Russian actions have increased tensions between the two nations is a bit complicated. A politically well-connected joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two aerospace and defense contracting giants, currently builds rockets that are contracted with the Air Force for satellite launch missions. United Launch Alliance, as the venture is known, uses Russian engines in its Atlas V rocket.
Sikma goes on to note that some in Congress, such as Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA), are arguing that the principle of free markets demands we keep purchasing from the Russians just to promote competition. That argument is rather sad to say the least. I’m all for free market capitalism, but generally only so far as it promotes American businesses and interests. Yet the same argument is being made to ask why we aren’t simply leaning on SpaceX and their Dragon ships to deliver our satellites into space.
This is, as Brian initially describes it, a complicated question, but not exactly in the same way he claims. First of all, SpaceX is doing some great work and I personally cheer for them. The future of space exploration may wind up resting largely on the private sector or, at a minimum, some form of hybrid partnership between the government and companies such as that. They’ve accomplished great things in launching resupply missions for the International Space Station and they seem to be advancing by leaps and bounds. But at the same time, it’s worth noting that they haven’t exactly reached the point of having a flawless record yet. Keep in mind that it was only last summer when we watched one of their launches explode and disintegrate in spectacular fashion moments after lifting off. Only a few months ago another one tipped over, crashed and burned while attempting a vertical landing. They are clearly getting to the point of viability, but there’s a steep learning curve in that game and we need something as reliable as possible, particuarly considering what every satellite costs to develop, build and put into orbit.
The other, perhaps more uncomfortable factor is that there’s only just so far that we can push the Russians right now on the space technology front. We decided to bench our shuttle fleet with no replacement in sight and if we want to continue putting astronauts on the space station or get involved in any other low orbit work, Putin is pretty much the only game in town. If we start shutting off his sales in the space program area, there’s really nothing stopping him from saying there are no seats available on the next launch. That may be an ugly reality, but we put ourselves in this position and until we get another reusable personnel launch vehicle in operation we’re pretty much stuck.