The latest news to come out of Ukraine doesn’t involve Vice President Joe Biden, European natural gas supplies, or Vladimir Putin’s insatiable appetite for the resurrection of the Soviet Union. In fact, it hits a bit closer to home. America’s spy satellites, as it turns out, is dependent upon Russian provided technology to reach orbit.
That’s right… Not only are our astronauts hitching rides to the Russian-run “international” space station, but even our spy satellites have to hitch a ride via Putin’s Russian Military industrial complex. And any sanctions that could come out of the situation in Ukraine, may just put the future of those missions in some peril. And the worst part is that American built technology, from American Companies, is being denied the opportunity to replace the Putin approved tech upon which our space missions depend.
At issue is the engine for the Atlas V rocket that places our satellites into orbit. The RD-180 is sold to the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin) for use in the Atlas V. And while the ULA claims to have enough engines in stock to last the agency roughly 2 – 3 years, they may soon be buying up more engines from Vladimir before sanctions are put in place, according to Capitol Hill insiders.
According to ULA, American made replacement engines are several years away… Which begs the question, “are we really that far behind” in space age technology? Well… No. It seems that ULA simply enjoys their monopolistic handle on American space technology. Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has developed all American-made alternatives to the Russian engines. And just like a good old-fashioned capitalist, Musk’s technology is significantly cheaper. (But, I guess saving the taxpayers some expense isn’t a real concern unless we’re talking about soldier pay, or foreign aid.)
According to the ULA, any sanctions that might inhibit their ability to acquire future RD-180’s, would be self-destructive to American interests:
Import restrictions of RD-180 engines by our own government would have a minor effect on Russia, as 90 percent of Russian exports to the U.S. are raw materials. It imposes an artificial crisis in the U.S. domestic launch market, one that only serves to impede U.S. capabilities to launch critical payloads.
So… Why, exactly, are we willing to be so dependent on a foreign power that thrives off of injecting instability throughout the world? Especially given the existence of cheaper domestic alternatives?
Of course, ULA (along with Boeing/ Lockheed Martin supporters in Congress) insist that replacement technology for Russian engines is still years in the future. And while SpaceX seems to have demonstrated a clear competency for producing domestic alternatives already, the cronyism in Washington has largely dismissed Musk’s attempts to bring space missions back home with his Falcon rockets. Apparently, Pentagon officials would rather continue to give Putin more money to advance his military objectives in Ukraine and beyond.
ULA would not comment on rumored plans to pre-buy RD-180’s before possible sanctions make such deals impossible. They instead, focused on their track record of success with Russian provided equipment – almost as if America can’t possibly be expected to produce quality technology without the help of some foreign thugocracy.
Hitching a ride to space with the most serious geopolitical threat to American interests seems mildly self-destructive. But when such actions are combined with a crony-capitalist dedication to wasting taxpayer dollars on Russian technology (despite domestic alternatives), it almost seems absurd. If there is any truth to the DC rumor that ULA plans on bulking up its stock piles of Russian rocket engines, it only adds to the decline of American space-age excellence. Wasting taxpayer dollars when there is a domestic alternative, simply to maintain the Boeing/ Lockheed Martin monopoly on military space missions, doesn’t exactly seem to fall in line with national security interests.
I might not be a huge fan of the Tesla Motor's CEO, Elon Musk… But, c’mon: I’d rather give money to an American innovator than a foreign military power any day. Especially when our incompetent government starts talking about getting in a sanctions war.
Besides: I thought we won the space race...