Our relationship with Russia is not in the best of shape. We’ve hit them with sanctions and more may be on the way. Putin was sent to sit at the kids’ table while all the cool dudes hung out at the G20. Obama is the butt of jokes on Russian TV. The situation is more tense than Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s house.
Hey, wait a minute… weren’t we supposed to be doing some kind of Buzz Lightyear deal with these guys?
Russia is a critical player in the business of carrying payloads into orbit, from communications satellites for Western companies to American astronauts traveling to the international space station.
But after Moscow grabbed Crimea from Ukraine in March, the U.S. State Department temporarily stopped issuing licenses for exporting sensitive defense-related technologies to Russia, including satellites, as part of broader sanctions imposed against the Kremlin. And in September, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced plans for two U.S. companies to build spacecraft to carry American astronauts to the space station, reducing its reliance on Russia.
But questions have cropped up about the capabilities of the budding commercial-space industry after October’s explosion of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket destined for the space station and the deadly crash of a Virgin Galactic LLC spacecraft. The Orbital rocket was powered by a refurbished Soviet-designed engine. The company now says the use of these engines “likely will be discontinued.”
Until the day if and when we can launch our own astronauts back into low orbit, there aren’t many other options for getting back and forth to the space station. Given the somewhat, ahem… explosive nature of recent American launches, a timetable for such activities is hard to pin down. Our government hasn’t allowed our satellites to be launched by the Chinese for a couple of decades (since Tiananmen Square) and that leaves the space faring clubhouse rather sparsely populated. The French have been helpful with the Ariane 5, but there are limits to both volume and delivery capability.
In some ways it’s quite admirable that the Americans and the Russians can concentrate on science and continue to cooperate on projects like the International Space Station, even as diplomatic relations between our politicians collapse. But it seems unlikely that the situation can remain static forever. But saving the space program obviously isn’t a big enough incentive to back down on issues like Ukraine or relations with Iran. If we can’t get our own program back on track in short order or find a new international partner to let us hitch rides, we may have to table the entire thing for a while.