The crisis in the Crimea continues, with Russia and the Ukraine threatening military action and the US and its western allies threatening sanctions. In addition to anxieties about the likelihood of war and the conflict spilling over into other regions, the crisis has served to highlight other possible global repercussions. And interestingly enough, some of them have to do with the current balance of space exploration and research.
In essence, every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucially important US national security payloads – is highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry. Thus, all of the US space exploration and launches are potentially at risk amidst the current crisis.
Compared to the possibility of an outbreak of war that could engulf the Eurasian triangle, this hardly seems terribly consequential. But alas, quite a few people stand to suffer from seeing all rockets grounded in the Ukraine and Russia as a result of the current climate. Consider the ISS, which is entirely dependent on Earth-based rockets for resupply and personnel rotation.
As it stands, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) ride to space and back on regularly scheduled launches, and each new rocket carried fresh supplies of food and equipment. The Atlas V and Antares rockets, plus critical U.S. spy satellites that provide vital, real time intelligence, are just some of the programs that may be in peril if events deteriorate, or worse yet, spin out of control.
The threat to intelligence gathering operations would be especially critical, since it would hamper efforts to monitor the crisis. In short, the Crimean confrontation and all the threats and counter threats of armed conflicts and economic sanctions shines a spotlight on US vulnerabilities regarding space exploration, private industry and US national security programs, missions, satellites and rockets.
But the consequences of escalating tensions would hardly be felt by only one side. Despite what some may think, the US, Russian and Ukrainian space programs, assets and booster rockets are inextricably intertwined and interdependent, and all would suffer if anything were to shut it down. For instance, some 15 nations maintain participation and funding to keep the ISS and its programs running.
And since the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America has been dependent on Russia for its human spaceflight capability. ISS missions are most often crewed by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. And under the most recent contract, the US pays Russia $70 million per Soyuz seat, and both they and the Ukraine’s space programs are dependent on this ongoing level of investment.
The fastest and most cost effective path to restore America’s human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit and the ISS is through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) seeking to develop private ‘space taxis’ with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. But until such time as long-term funding can be guaranteed, the current arrangement will persist.
Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians. Missions up and down are on target… People lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises… I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the same time, he urged Congress to fully fund CCP and avoid still more delays:
Let me be clear about one thing. The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the US or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses investing in America, and we believe Congress will choose this course as well.
At a US Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Defense, which was held yesterday to address national security issues, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk underscored the crucial differences in availability between the Falcon 9 and Atlas V in this excerpt from his testimony:
In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.
So, continuing operations of the ISS and US National Security are potentially held hostage to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And given that Russia has threatened to retaliate with sanctions of its own against the West, the likelihood that space exploration will suffer is likely.
The Crimean crisis is without a doubt the most dangerous East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War. Right now no one knows the future outcome of the crisis in Crimea. Diplomats are talking but some limited military assets on both sides are reportedly on the move today.