Common Sense in Space

Robert Bunn
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Posted: Dec 17, 2015 2:00 PM
Common Sense in Space

As the Omnibus bill gets secretly worked and reworked, all lips are sealed. Still, it seems that common sense may be returning to the Congressional assessment of space, specifically to preserve America’s ability to launch intelligence satellites to necessary, deep space orbits through and beyond the end of this decade.

If public reports are correct, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala) has recognized what many space and intelligence experts have been suggesting for more than a year, after the dismaying decision by Congress slap space-related sanctions on Russia: Setting an arbitrary deadline on American military access to the unique RD-180 Russian launch engine – that is, cutting off our ability to buy these engines – would be foolhardy. The way to protect American national security is two-fold, and Senator Shelby seems to be on this track.

The first part of the answer is to avoid loss of critical launch capacity until America can design, test, certify and deploy an American-made rocket engine – one that will match the RD-180 dollar-for-dollar, pound-of-thrust-for-pound-of-thrust, one that is equally reliable and provides us with proven heavy lift. To date and probably through 2025, we simply will not have that engine, even under the best of circumstances. So, wisdom says a bird – or engine – in the hand, is worth two (or more) in the bush. Protect national security with unlimited access to the one engine that works, to help us get assets into space.

Second, work with the various potential competitors – large and small – to get movement toward an American made alternative. This is obviously the long term strategy, and should be as eagerly embraced by all parties to the discussion as the more immediate common sense that dictates legislative unlimited access to RD-180s. In effect, Senator Shelby is walking back a congressional decision that would otherwise endanger, in a palpable way, American national security for decades to come.

Ironically, while we continue to trade extensively with Russia, we happened to choose one of the assets without which we are worse off – substantially worse off – if we do not have it, when Congress limited aRD-180 buys. By analogy, we did not cut off our own access to Russian space launch of our astronauts to the International Space Station. To have done so would have been not just counter-productive, but would have simultaneously benefited others at our expense, while disenfranchising our own astronaut corps.

Similarly, when it comes to protecting America’s national security, we must take the long view – and it is long – not the short and emotionally satisfying route of eating our feed corn, preventing future access to deep space for assets that would otherwise become more and more strained, gradually going out like candles in a stiff wind, within four or five years.

So, in the craziness of this present Omnibus fracas, with nothing but “shadows on the cave wall,” ungrounded rumors and oblique public reports to inform us of what Congress is doing, let us at least congratulate one member of Congress – who appears, in this early and murky moment, to have it exactly right. Senator Shelby, if the latest Space News and other reports are accurate, is preserving America’s national security in a real and tangible way by assuring unlimited access in coming years to the RD-180 rocket engines, and thus the efficacy of our heavy-lift, space launch and intelligence capacities.

If this report is accurate, common sense appears to be afoot in space and in the area of space launch, protecting our vital national security interests in space for years to come, when we most need these assets. Now, if we can only get common sense to break out back here on Earth, we may have something. Meantime, let us hope the reports of common ground on the high frontier are correct.