Thursday Review celebrates the achievements of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who recently broke Mike Fincke’s record of 382 cumulative days spent in space by a U.S. astronaut; Kelly will soon break another record: the most continuous time spent in space. Read our complete article about Kelly’s mission aboard the International Space Station.
By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor
Published May 15, 2014: With U.S.-Russia relations at a low point for cooperation—and many would make the argument that the tension between the two nations is at its worst since the Cold War—the future of the International Space Station is now in serious doubt.
Tensions over the Ukraine have led the U.S. and some of its partner countries to enact economic sanctions against Russia. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tossed about some of his own economic actions, including the threat of cutting off desperately needed oil and gas to Europe. Few of Russia’s tit-for-tat sanctions would actually have a direct impact on the U.S., however, aside from the ripple effect caused by oil price increases worldwide.
But Putin has one ace up his sleeve which, in fact, does present an immediate problem for the United States and a few of its technological allies: for the last decade or so the U.S. has been largely dependent upon Russian rockets to get American hardware and U.S. astronauts into space. The decommissioning of the shuttle program in those heady days of cooperation between Moscow and Washington meant that the U.S. could save a bundle of cash by letting the Russians handle the heavy-lifting of travel into Earth orbit. At the time there were few—if any—military or techno thinkers who foresaw the kind of political and military trouble now spilling outward from the Ukraine.
Furthermore, several U.S. companies, including Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, have been using rocket engines built in Russia for several major defense department projects. Why not American rocket propulsion systems? The Russian-made engines are cheaper and ready for use inside American missiles and rockets, or so the logic went until a few months ago.
Force majeure, as they say in the law. That was then; this is now.
The U.S. Air Force (along with other agencies) very badly needs to get some cutting-edge hardware and gadgetry into space. NASA has neither the funding nor the capacity, and few U.S. allies have space programs which are fully operational and at-the-ready.
So, after being routinely bypassed by the Pentagon and numerous U.S. government agencies, Space Exploration Technology, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, is now feeling the rush of vindication. The Air Force has put all of its leverage and resources behind getting Space X fully certified for the purpose of getting military hardware and spy satellite swag into space.
In late April, Musk had even filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Appeals contending, among other things, that a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, called United Launch Alliance, was little more than a monopoly with a cushy, exclusive contract with the Pentagon for the long term EELV project (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle). The Space X website contains a press statement in which that joint venture is described by Space X as “on a sole-source basis without any competition from other launch providers.”
“Space X is not seeking to be awarded contracts for these launches,” the statement says, “we are simply seeking the right to compete.”
Musk told Congressional members in March that the Pentagon has been essentially supporting a two-partner monopoly by using only the Lockheed-Martin/Boeing cabal at a time when others should be invited to the table to offer their own technologies and make bids for space flights.
Now the Air Force is so willing to work with the California-based Space X that the Pentagon has an entire team of experts devoting their entire workdays to getting Space X certified for a variety of military launch applications.
Musk heads not only Space X, but also Tesla Motors, a firm devoted to creating workable, low-cost fuel cell, battery and high-tech cars. Musk told Congressional leaders that “space launch innovation has stagnated [and] competition has been stifled” as a result of the collusion between top Air Force brass and the partnership between Boeing and Lockheed.
The Air Force now hopes that it can work with Space X and forge a partnership which may bring about new flights using the California-based company as early as 2018. Space X has used its Falcon 9 rocket on three previous occasions to deliver materials to the space station, each time using its Dragon spacecraft atop the rocket. The Dragon capsule is equipped with a large payload area (23.5 feet in height and 12 feet in diameter) specially designed for cargo.
Meanwhile, some in Congress are asking NASA directly: how do we proceed if we do not have Russia as a partner in future space projects? Sanctions cut both directions over the last few months, and Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced earlier in May that his country would halt any further sales of Russian-made rocket engines or boosters to the U.S. or its partners. Russia has also threatened to withdraw completely from the space station program, putting the future of the civilian and science project at risk.
With its funding cut deeply at the end of the last decade, NASA ended manned space exploration in 2011. Space X has been working with NASA for several years, providing launch services for satellites and other payloads.
The U.S. government also has open competitive arrangement with several companies—Space X among them—to develop low cost, innovative rocket systems for shuttling astronauts and supplies into space. The other companies who have been asked to develop technologies for space travel include Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin, and Amazon.
Related Thursday Review articles:
Space Bots; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 12, 2014.
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