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Skin of Our Teeth

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Sometimes a calamity is averted “by the skin of our teeth,” and one just was.   Last December, Congress returned to the American citizen a degree of long term security that, by some inexplicable twist, it had taken away in 2014.  No, this is not about the awful Iran nuclear deal, which plainly opens up new vulnerabilities, or the stop-and-start mess surrounding Syria, Iraq and the Islamic State, so-called.  This was a simpler, yet more immediate error – corrected, in the nick of time. 

In 2014, for reasons that remain enshrouded in mystery, possibly tied to longstanding personal antagonisms or personal preferences, perhaps wrapped up in the frustration that members of Congress had with Russia, Congress pressed into law a random, near term, and indefensible limit on what American companies and the United States Air Force could do to protect us – from space. 

Specifically, they passed a law banning use of one-of-a-kind Russian rocket engines for protection of our national security, the only engines that can realistically assure delivery of American satellites into deeper space, and engines that have been used for this purpose for the past ten years. 

Suddenly, after a willy-nilly date in the future, America would be stripped of heavy lift launch capacity, based on the satisfaction expected from layering added sanctions on the spiraling Russian economy.  The trade-off was questionable at the outset, but as time has passed it seemed even less wise.  With Iran and North Korea both seeking a ballistic missile to carry conventional and nuclear warheads, the last thing Americans should do is free up missiles Russia can sell to these aspiring aggressors.  At the same time, the ability of our less developed rocket companies to field a parallel (heavy lift) rocket engine, one that would free us from dependence on the Russian RD-180 engines, seems to gotten less certain.  In fact, there is no such engine now, nor on the foreseeable horizon. 

So what did Congress do to repair the damage that they had wrought?  They actually reassessed the need for these engines.  They paused to consider the effects of their decision into the distant future, and formally committed to secure these Russian rocket engines for whatever period of time will be needed to protect US national security.  In time, with proper funding and engineering, testing and deployment, there will surely be an American engine of similar lift capacity – but no time soon. 

Accordingly, the US Congress passed a bill that reflected the collective wisdom and counsel of experts from inside and outside the US Government, and expressly preserved access to the exact engines they had prematurely suspected access to a year earlier.  This is one decision that all Americans should be proud of.  This is one example of Congressional sobriety and humility, wisdom and a degree of reflection on the distant future. 

Here was a moment of trepidation and triumph, wisdom in preserving access to heavy lift – to reliably deliver satellites to orbit – over the tendency to indulge rancor and dyspeptic policy.  Sometimes Congress does get things exactly right, and in this case, they did.  In the process, Americans won a battle for common sense.  Senator Shelby (R-AL), based on his publications and speeches, stepped forward to help make that happen.  And then the entire Congress stepped up.  We have many national security vulnerabilities and concerns, but at least this one is resolved – if only “by the skin of our teeth.”  Now, on to addressing Iran and North Korea. 

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