Could the budgetary shot in the arm our space program so desperately needs come from rising tensions between Russia and the US? In the latest development in the New Cold War™, a Senate panel has budgeted $100 million to fund a state-of-the-art rocket engine designed and built right here in Amurica.
Right now, most of what we blast into space is powered by an engine called the RD-180. It's actually fascinating story: The RD-180 was developed in the USSR long before the iron curtain fell, a legendary piece of machinery that far surpassed anything the US had managed to build. When the Soviet Union ended, the program was ended—and the RD-180 was forgotten. It wasn't until the 90s that it was rediscovered, as Richard Martin explained a few years back in Wired:
In 1993, a group of American defense contractors visited the Moscow rocket factory. "We looked at the Russian stuff and did a number of calculations to understand what they were telling us," says Bob Ford, who headed the group and now directs Lockheed Martin's reusable launch vehicle. "It was eye-popping."
And the rest is history—we've been using Russian-made rockets ever since. And that's been fine, until, of course, tensions rose over Russia's involvement in the Ukraine. Now, the space programs of both US and Russia exist in a tangled web—and untangling them is going to be messy.
Earlier this month, Russia announced it would block the sale of RD-180 engines to the US for any military purposes. Here's how Russia's Deputy Prime Minister put it on Twitter:
So, fine. Maybe Russia doesn't want to sell us any more engines, but the US must have a back-up plan if the RD-180 well runs dry, right?
Not exactly. A report sanctioned by the US Defense Department earlier this month looked at how badly losing the RD-180 would be for the US, and it wasn't pretty: Without access to those sweet Russia-made rockets, as many as 31 missions would end up delayed—at a cost of $5 billion to the government. It would even ground the US Defense Department's Atlas V rocket for as long as three years.
Which brings us back to the new defense bill, which was approved by the Armed Services Committee yesterday. Now, it'll go to vote in the Senate itself. But as PhysOrg points out, a similar allowance in a separate bill—this one passed in the House of Representatives—will need to be reconciled with the Senate's before either can be passed.
Russian rocket engine company Energomash company employees stand near RD-180 engines prepared for shipment to the United States. AP Photo/Maxim Marmur.
Some within the space industry have suggested that the US could develop their own, domestic-made version of the RD-180. Seems sensible, right? Not according to U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton, who leads the Air Force Space Command. He thinks the US should "start from scratch" to develop an entirely new form of rocket engine:
I don't see us going into an RD-180 co-production mode. There will still be a reliance on Russian system engineering and subject matter expertise and all that. You haven't necessarily solved the problem.
It will be up to the Senate to give the new bill the go-ahead. In the meantime, we can dream about a second coming of NASA's golden age, spurred by exactly the same political forces that launched it into orbit 50 years ago.