US-Russia relations are at a low ebb and show few signs of improving, but cooperation in space is plowing ahead despite all the odds. Russian rocket engines continue to be used to launch the US into space. NASA astronauts use Russian Soyuz rockets to travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is where Russians and Americans work shoulder-to-shoulder to carry out a common mission. Together they train, communicate, and perform other tasks in order to do their job. And in an emergency, the astronauts will depend on a Russian spacecraft to serve as a their lifeboat.
That bilateral relationship has seen its ups and downs, but the two nations have been cooperating in space ever since the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. Russian President Putin believes that’s the way it should be. According to him, “Thank God, this field of activity is not being influenced by problems in politics. Therefore, I hope that everything will develop, since it is in the interests of everyone…This is a sphere that unites people. I hope it will continue to be this way.”
Russian media reported on September 4 that the Energomash engine manufacturer had signed a new contract to supply four RD-181 rocket engines to the US Orbital ATK aerospace and defense company by 2021 for its Antares rocket that is used to launch NASA’s cargo tugs into space to provision the ISS. The RD-181 engine is a modification of the RD-180, which was developed specifically for Antares rockets. Orbital ATK examined many foreign and American engines, but ultimately chose the RD-181, which has superior technical specifications and is less expensive than the potential American-made options. Without these Russian engines, the cost to launch these key satellites that are used for military purposes would skyrocket. By comparison, the Delta rocket is the only alternative for launching large satellites into high orbit. It costs about 33% more per launch.
Russian rocket engines considerably increase the lift capacity of the launcher. It is hard to find a substitute for them. The US has been purchasing RD-180s from Russia for over 20 years. The Pentagon had to be granted a waiver from the packages of sanctions that have been imposed on Russia since 2014, as it finds that for at least the next few years it still cannot manage without these Russian engines.
It was reported in July that Energomash had signed a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to supply six more RD-180 engines in 2020. The two companies had previously signed contracts for 22 engines to be delivered between 2017 and 2018. ULA relies on the RD-180 to power the Atlas 5 rocket that is primarily used for government launches, such as national security payloads and scientific research missions. Of the 19 engines Energomash got orders for in 2018, 17 are to be supplied to US contractors. ULA has plans to test launch its Atlas 5 rocket equipped with the Russian engine this November. Manned flights are slated for February 2019.
NASA is negotiating with Russia on further joint efforts to advance space programs, including the joint construction of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway. A joint statement on cooperation aimed at establishing a research-focused space station that would orbit the moon was signed last September. The platform to be used as a staging area for deep space exploration. Once it is up and running, the project will be a logical continuation of the ISS international mission. Hopefully, Russia and the US will be able to work out other official and mutually advantageous agreements on space cooperation, including arrangements that will prevent the militarization of that domain.
While the US pressures other countries to reject Russian weapons and is adamant in its desire to prevent the Nord Stream 2 undersea gas project by threatening European companies with sanctions, its space contractors are allowed to purchase the Russian rocket engines the space program depends on. The law that makes this possible will remain in place into the next decade in order to keep the space program afloat. Waivers are possible for US companies, but strict compliance with the anti-Russian sanctions is a hard-and-fast rule for Europe. As the late Senator John McCain put it, “This is the height of hypocrisy! How can our government tell European countries and governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do, when we are gutting our own policy in this way?” Perhaps it’s time for Europeans, many of whom are opposed to the Russian sanctions, to ask some uncomfortable questions about the US stance on this issue.