Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the world political scene has been suddenly turned upside down. Many were surprised by this move, and harsh words and threats from the west were thrown down Putin’s alley. Talks of economic sanctions for Russia, in hope its military presence in Ukraine might be withdrawn, have been publically made. ZME Science has often chosen to stay away from political matters, however the present crisis can have dramatic consequences on scientific efforts. Nevermind there’s the distinct possibility of a second Cold War, the simplest cutting of ties between Russia and the west could spell disaster for the world’s space programs, this includes commercial satellite launches, national security deployments in space, as well as astronaut and cargo ferrying to and fro the International Space Station.
Currently, the space industries belonging to the European Union, Japan, and the United States are heavily reliant on Russian’s hardware. For instance, the new generation Atlas V rockets developed by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin-Boeing partnership, use state of the art RD-180s engines developed by the Russian Energomash corporation. Atlas V last launched in Decemeber when it carried a secret observation satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. Even from months back there’s been a political tug of war between the US, namely the Air Force which is looking to licence the RD-180s, and Russia which became upset at the news that its hardware was being used by a rival state for military missions. Imagine what strain on future partnerships of this kind an economic embargo enforced by the US against Russia might pose.
That’s not all. Since the US discontinued its shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to launch certain payloads into space and, most importantly, keep the vital Earth-International Space Station route operational. Booked at $60 million a seat, the Soyuz could be kept off limits to the US and any other country that wishes to meddle into Russia’s affairs.
There are of course some alternatives – namely the private space ventures. Currently SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation split some $1.4 billion awarded each year by NASA to support their research programs. Of all these, only SpaceX has proven capable of serving some of NASA’s needs after last year it performed its first mission to the ISS, when the company’s Dragon Capsule successfully docked. However, although the Dragon was designed to carry people from the get-go, the mission only ferried cargo. NASA is set to choose a new partner for manned space launches, and SpaceX as the likeliest candidate might get a slot, but no sooner than 2017. Until then, all crew launches are reserved to Soyuz spacecraft.
Concerning the ISS, it is one of the most extensive and beautiful collaborations in the world, comprising 14 states. It’s a symbol of man’s unity in attempt to conquer space, one that transcends national borders below on Earth or colours. With this in mind, I pesonally hope any political turmoil back on Earth doesn’t affect the efforts in space. Wishful thiking or not…