Op-ed | Space, Trade and Russian Rockets

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Over the past year, America’s experiments with space launch — of things and people — have not been pretty. 

What should Americans make of the difficulty our rockets seem to be having getting into space? Have we lost our edge?

Are we becoming the dog-eared follower of others into space, less reliable and less capable, no longer the leader we once were? Or is the recent spate of rocket engine failures, untimely launch pad explosions and payload losses just par for the course, akin to a bad day on the stock market?

Is this the price we pay for progress, a price that the future always exacts from the present?

And do we have no choice in all this? Are we stuck with the inevitability of more rocket failures and whatever that symbolizes?

The answer is this: We have good choices. We still have leadership if we want it and do not give it away. And yes, in the process of preserving what we have and creating what we want to have, there will be more failures. Failure is painful to watch; that is the way to success.

Concretely, there have been a number of recent space-related or launch-related calamities, the latest in June. These should give all policymakers pause. On the other hand, the leap from where we are now to where we may want to be — in space, at least — has always taken more time than anticipated. Even taken together, these several failures are neither fatal nor final — although they are not reassuring.

The Russian-designed and -built RD-180 rocket engine is key to the United States' interests in space. Credit: NASA
The Russian-designed and -built RD-180 rocket engine is key to the United States’ interests in space. Credit: NASA

If the unstated goal for NASA, the U.S. Air Force and Congress is complete independence from international suppliers, perhaps even a purely domestic supply chain for all major rocket launches — that goal is laudable. However, we need to think with our heads, not our hearts. That goal represents an ideal, a goal that is elusive and several years away. Operationally, an American heavy-lift engine that will rival current options, including American rockets launched on the Russian heavy-lift engines, is just a twinkle in hopeful eyes, certainly not a near-term reality.

For now, we have many launch experiments underway, and we also have rockets that are powered by Russian rocket engines, just as we coordinate with the Russians to get our astronauts to and from the International Space Station. In fact, our economic cooperation with Russia — even over the past year of sanctions — is enormous. The sanctions have reduced U.S.-Russian trade by less than 10 percent, while tight economic ties continue across multiple sectors. Both countries benefit from the economic relationship.

According to a recent Forbes analysis, two-way trade between the two countries totaled $34.3 billion in 2014, down slightly from $38 billion in 2013. While we maintain a trade deficit with Russia, that is down to $12.9 billion from $15.9 billion in 2013. So the notion that we are not mutually dependent is nonsense. So too, then, is the argument that we should dump the Russian engines that power our heavy-lift rockets into space, for the gratification of robbing Russia of small change in foreign currency.

Like it or not, as the U.S. Air Force has testified this year before Congress, and as national security hawks are beginning to suggest, we have bigger fish to fry. We must — and this means Congress must — protect the advantages we have in space, the leadership role we have played in space, as well as the unique relationship we have with Russia. They are a major trading partner, and we are one of theirs. We also benefit greatly from purchasing their heavy-lift rocket engines, which do not malfunction (having a nearly flawless record of service throughout American use) and have permitted us to keep our leadership in space, based on payloads delivered.

We also benefit greatly from purchasing [Russian] heavy-lift rocket engines, which do not malfunction (having a nearly flawless record of service throughout American use) and have permitted us to keep our leadership in space, based on payloads delivered.

We must continue to experiment, and suffer losses with patience and resolve to press on. That is the American way. But we must also balance our equities better. We need the economic relationship with Russia, need the heavy-lift rocket engines they sell us now, and need what those engines allow us to do in space. We are likely to need them until 2025, at least. Or until our experimental ambitions — including someday having a heavy-lift engine of our own — catch up with hard realities of engineering and physics.

Congress needs to get back to basics, back to Economics 101, and back to preserving national security access to space.

Bottom line: Congress should put a space-related carve-out in any sanctions on Russia, or we will end up sanctioning ourselves. And that would not be pretty.

Robert Bunn is a former senior law enforcement attorney in Florida and an author. He has special interests in rocketry, intelligence, international affairs and national security.