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How Russia could strangle the US space program

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

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)

UPDATE: On May 13, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said his government planned to reject a request from the United States to prolong the International Space Station project beyong 2020. Moscow also plans to prevent the US from using Russian-made rockets to launch military satellites.

“We are very concerned about continuing to develop high-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicizes everything,” Rogozin said.

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.

But it gives the Russians a virtual stranglehold on the US space program, including systems vital for national security.

Over the next 24 months, according to Dalby, the Atlas V will be used to launch four classified spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), one unclassified imagery satellite, two weather satellites, four GPS satellites, three military communications satellites, two classified payloads for the Air Force and one NASA science satellite.

“[Losing the RD-180] would be a blow to our national security,” said John Logsdon, the founder and long-time director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “The Atlas V is the primary vehicle we use to launch military and civil pay loads into space.”

The question of US dependence on Russian rockets has begun to worry the defense establishment as well.

Testifying at a budget hearing of the House Appropriations Committee in mid-March, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel indicated that the Pentagon was concerned about the RD-180 issue.

When asked by an Alabama congressman whether the crisis in Ukraine would prompt the Defense Department to move ahead with additional funding to develop domestic capabilities to manufacture rocket engines, Hagel responded that it certainly would.

“You’re obviously referring to the relationship with the Russians on the rocket motors,” the defense secretary said. “Well, I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

But developing a

yuval More than 1 year ago
Well, if you need small satielites placed into orbits you can always rely on Israel. Israel has been orbiting comm and classified satelites from the mediterranean for years. If you cannot mame small satelites get Israel make them for you. Might as well since the better part of the computing that goes into them comes from Israel anyway. Israel is unlikelky to stiff the US on national security issues asking the US to stop demanding ISrael comply with the Muslim terror the US espouses
Elizabeth Muwonge More than 1 year ago
This is so depressing.