Unexpected consequence of tensions with Russia?

By David Ord

…..  with tensions rising over the Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, what is the future of US-Russian Space co-operation?

Some of the sanctions which have been announced, such as freezing the assets of Russian individuals have had an immediate effect – many super rich Russians have transferred their liquid assets out of Western banks and into Russian banks -all done with a few strokes of the keyboard. But, just as swiftly the Western credit card agencies Mastercard and Visa withdrew their processing services to those Russian banks; so the super rich Russians would have to pay cash when they travelled!

Boris Johnson cancelled a trip to a trade fair in Moscow (not all bad news then) and David Cameron said that he did not rule out sanctions against Roman Abramovitch the owner of Chelsea football club – perhaps by not letting him win the premiership league?…..or let Abramovitch  win it and than take it away from him, even better!

Even the Russian owner of the Brooklyn Nets has re-incorporated his company in Russia – to protect his asset from some kind of reprisal.

So, these sanctions are pretty scary stuff. Still, I do not mean to get political (except maybe for the Chelsea thing – but that’s more tribal than anything else) and merely bring these to your attention to set the background to this month’s story.

So, in the same week as all this turmoil of ‘tit-for-tat’ with the Russians, it is somewhat bizarre that both ESA and NASA each send cheques for $71 Million to Mr. Putin to pay for the transport of their astronauts to the International Space Station.

So who vetoed the NASA budget for a spacecraft to replace the Shuttles to ferry the crew to the ISS? Obama is clean, he asked for the funding for NASA, but Congress turned him down. The long knives are out in the US Congress and hawks are having a field day telling all and sundry ‘I told you so!”.

Because the U.S. doesn’t presently have its own way to get astronauts into space, it relies upon Russian rockets to do so. Last April, NASA signed a new agreement with Russia providing six flights through 2017, at a cost of $71 million per seat. At the time, NASA administrator Charles Bolden blamed Congress for failing to fund a replacement ride.

“We are confident that our two space agencies will continue to work closely as they have throughout various ups and downs of the broader U.S.-Russia relationship. But, if NASA had received the President’s requested funding, we would not have been forced to sign a new contract for Soyuz flights.’ – NASA administrator Charles Bolden

Translating this, Mr Bolden suggests that whereas he hopes that it will not be a problem continuing to work with the Russians, it would be better if NASA did not have to rely upon them!

 

Meanwhile, as the political fallout heats up, the launch site at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan undergoes final preparation for the launch of the Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft which will carry American astronaut Steve Swanson and Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev to the ISS on the 25th of March. They will be under the command of the Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.

expedition 39 crew

Expedition 39 Crew – 3 Russian cosmonauts, 2 American Astronauts and a Japanese Commander of the Expedition.

At the Yuri Gagarin Astronaut School in Star City, near Moscow (formerly known as ‘closed military townlet No.1’) it is a courtesy to the astronauts under training that the flag of their nation is raised at the main entrance. Recently the crews under tutelage required that the national flags of Russia, the USA, Germany and Japan were all flying together. There was a time when no one could ever have envisaged that happening, in a once secret military suburb on the outskirts of Moscow. So progress has been made on the planet.

For some, US astronauts training in Moscow on Russian equipment just re-enforces how dependent NASA has become on Russia for manned space flight to the ISS.

baikonur cosmodrome

Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan prepares the next Soyuz craft bound for the ISS.

So, what alternatives are available to the Americans? The two American commercial cargo delivery projects – Space-X’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, as well as Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule – have been successfully tested for supplying the ISS – but neither system is close to delivering astronauts.

NASA is supersensitive about its provision to take care of its astronauts and a continuing embarrassment is that they cannot provide a crew rescue from the ISS and in an emergency would be totally dependent upon the Russians. Even though there is always a Soyuz craft docked with the ISS, with 6 seats acting as a lifeboat for the crew, it still irks the Americans that they would play no part in an evacuation, should it be required.

It is thought that one of the American commercial cargo delivery systems could be further advanced to at least cater for an emergency rescue mission. The fact these freighters use the ‘big doors’ on the ISS and do not dock as such, creates an issue in an emergency. The crew would have to suit up with life support systems before going out to the loading bay compared to simply entering any docked craft directly.

A better proposition may be either the European or Japanese robot freighters since they actually dock with the ISS, albeit on the Russian end of the station. ESA has certainly shown plans for a manned version of the capsule.

Or, perhaps the Americans could persuade their new BFFs, the Chinese, to participate in the ISS. Currently, the Chinese manned space-craft development is further advanced than the Americans and could quite quickly provide at least the crew rescue option.

It turns out that the US is not only reliant upon Russia for its ISS operations, but many other space projects. Orbital Sciences, one of the commercial alternatives used by NASA uses vital components from both the Ukraine and Russia for its rockets.

But perhaps the strangest situation in the ‘love-hate’ relationship between Russia and the USA concerns the launch of spy satellites. At the same time as Russia prepares to launch the Soyuz craft to carry the American and Russian crew to the ISS, the Americans are preparing a massive Atlas V rocket to launch a clandestine package on behalf of the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The Atlas V is operated by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing Corp. One of the most powerful rockets ever, it can lift over 5 tonnes directly into an ‘eavesdropping’ orbit. This was the system used for the launch of the very heavy Curiosity rover on its Mars mission.

The launch is known simply as NROL-67, a classified satellite-delivery flight for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office. The NRO is the secretive government agency that controls the country’s spy satellites. Perhaps they would like to check on Russian troop movements in the Eastern Ukraine?

“From developing and acquiring new capabilities to launching and operating the most technically advanced systems, the NRO remains the premier space reconnaissance organisation in the world,” said NRO Director Betty Sapp.

So what is this strange situation related to this event? Well, the rocket engines used by this Atlas V are supplied to the United Launch Alliance – and you probably guessed this already – by the Russian company NPO Energomash; whose oligarch owner has probably just lost the use of his Mastercard!

So, Betty, it is surely not the best idea for the NRO to be reliant upon critical technologies from sources which may themselves become the subject of your ‘premier space reconnaissance’ activities.

Indeed, at a congressional hearing on Thursday, March 13, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the rocket motor issue would definitely need to be examined.

“I think this is going to engage us in a review of that issue. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Hagel said.

You betcha, Chuck!

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