Crimea Situation Not Affecting U.S.-Russian Space Relationship So Far

Crimea Situation Not Affecting U.S.-Russian Space Relationship So Far

Russia’s actions in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula may have chilled geopolitical relationships, but so far there is no apparent impact on space activities.

U.S. dependence on Russia for crew transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as well as ISS “lifeboat” services is well known in the space community (if not by the general public).   Less well known is that two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas V and Antares – rely on Russian rocket engines.  United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V is used primarily for national security satellites, but also some NASA and commercial spacecraft and two of NASA’s commercial crew competitors plan to use it.  Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares is used to launch cargo to the ISS.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about any impacts on ISS operations yesterday in connection with the release of the FY2015 budget request.  He stressed that everything is “normal” with regard to ISS operations.   The ISS crew currently consists of three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese.  Two of the Russians and one American are due to return to Earth in a few days (March 10 EDT) and a new crew – also two Russians and an American – will launch at the end of the month.

A number of international crises have occurred during the past 13 years of ISS operations, Bolden said yesterday, citing the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, another former USSR republic, as an example.  “People in [the ISS] program are focused on how to make the world better,” Bolden insisted, and indicated there has been no impact on the ISS program because of current tensions.

The United States has been dependent on Russia for taking crews to and from the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.   NASA’s commercial crew program is designed to facilitate the development of new U.S. crew space transportation systems by the private sector, but none is expected to be operational before 2017.   The ISS has been dependent on the Russians for lifeboats to escape the ISS in an emergency since the beginning of the program. Some of the commercial crew vehicles might be able to replace that capability.  Under current schedules, however, there is no way to keep crews aboard the ISS without Russia until at least 2017.   (Russia also needs the United States to keep the ISS operating, since the U.S. segment provides electrical power, for example, to the Russian segment.)

Michael Gass, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance, reassured Congress at a hearing this morning that launches of the Atlas V rocket also will not be affected.  Gass and competitor Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Designer of SpaceX, appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee (SAC-D) today to discuss DOD’s procurement of launch services.  SpaceX is trying to break into the DOD market, which is dominated by ULA with its Delta IV and Atlas V rockets that are used to launch virtually all U.S. national security space satellites (as well as a few NASA and commercial missions).

The Atlas V’s RD-180 engines are Russian.  Subcommittee chairman Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) first question was directed at Gass on this topic    Noting that there is talk of sanctions, Durbin asked Gass for his assessment of the reliability of the supply of engines under these circumstances.  Gass replied that ULA has a two-year stockpile of engines and the blueprints for making more themselves if needed.   He added that ULA has produced specific parts from those blueprints to demonstrate that they can, if needed, build that exact engine.   He also noted that the Delta IV could be used.

“We are not at any risk” for supporting the nation’s launch needs, Gass insisted, adding that  “We have always kept our ability” to not be “leveraged in case of any kind of supply interruption.”

Musk, conversely, used ULA’s reliance on Russian and other foreign parts as a rationale for arguing that the Atlas V be discontinued.   He agreed with U.S. space policy, which requires two families of launch vehicles to meet national needs, but said they should be ULA’s Delta and his Falcon.  Musk may have been sincere, but some might view his proposal as disingenuous since his two competitors for NASA’s commercial crew program – Boeing and Sierra Nevada – both plan to use Atlas V to launch their spacecraft (CST-100 and Dream Chaser, respectively).  If it were phased out, that would leave SpaceX as the only option.

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket also uses Russian engines – NK-33’s, which are refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne and redesignated AJ-26.  Antares is currently used only for launching cargo missions to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, although the company is seeking additional customers.  Each Antares uses two NK-33/AJ-26 engines.  Press reports indicate Aerojet acquired 36 of them, so there apparently is a substantial inventory, but Space News recently reported that Orbital is looking at two or three alternatives – all Russian – for future supplies.   A spokesman for Orbital said the company was “watching the situation carefully” and the number of engines is sufficient to meet its entire CRS contract with NASA.  The first stage core of the Antares is made in Ukraine and he said there are three in the United States right now which will take the company through early to mid 2015.  Two more are scheduled for delivery in the second half of this year and “so far, so good” with their suppliers in Ukraine.

Note:  This story was updated with the information from Orbital’s spokesman.


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