How Russia could strangle the US space program

The New Horizons spacecraft atop an Atlas V rocket lifts off Jan. 19, 2006 at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. (Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images)

If you use a cellphone, have a GPS system in your car, or get cash from ATMs, you should be worried.

by Jean MacKenzie

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — Think Russia has no way to put pressure on the United States? Think again.

The US relies heavily on Russia to furnish the engines that power rockets that deliver both military and civil payloads into space.

This includes GPS systems in cars and cellphones, and even systems that allow ATMs to function. Weather satellites are launched into space via Russian-powered rockets, and military systems such as early missile detection also depend on our friends in Moscow.

In addition, since NASA scrapped the space shuttle program in 2011, the US has to rely on Russian Soyuz capsules to get its astronauts to the space station and to bring them back home.

As the crisis over Crimea deepens and tit-for-tat sanctions go into effect, conventional wisdom has held that the US is holding all the cards. Given the relatively small amount of trade the US conducts with Russia each year, and its pre-eminent position as the world’s largest economy, Washington has projected confidence as it moves to isolate Moscow diplomatically and economically.

But Russia is unlikely to take it lying down. As Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, warned in a talk at Harvard recently, “They have ways of responding [to sanctions] that … we’re not going to like.”

One of the things Americans may dislike very much indeed is a possible ban on the sale of RD-180 engines to the US under a contract with Russian manufacturer NPO Energomash.

The RD-180 powers the Atlas V rocket, the main launch vehicle used to get US military and civil payloads into space.

“The Russian rocket engines are the best in the world,” said Royce Dalby, a space systems expert and managing director of Avascent, an aerospace and defense consulting firm in Washington, DC. “RD-180 provides the most efficient and least expensive means of getting our national security payloads into space.”

The dollar amounts are not great, relatively speaking: While the actual price paid for the engines is proprietary, experts estimate the cost from $11 million to $15 million per engine.

In an average year the US launches eight or nine satellites with the Atlas V….






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