Tensions Threaten U.S.-Russia Space Deals

Congress has set aside funding to lower reliance on Russian space gear.

An Atlas V rocket with NASA's Juno spacecraft payload is seen the evening before its planned launch at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug. 4, 2011, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The engine used to power the Atlas V rocket, shown with NASA's Juno spacecraft, is supplied to the U.S. by Russia.

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Partnership on space travel is a keystone of U.S. relations with Russia, but Congress and American aerospace companies are making contingency plans to reduce reliance on space gear from the former Cold War rival​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ as tensions over violence in Ukraine escalate.

Russian soldiers occupied the Crimea region of south Ukraine in March, and pro-Russia forces continue to clash with the national guard in the eastern part of the country. Ties between Russia and the West have since deteriorated, with the latest example being the group of major industrialized nations, now known as the G7, meeting on Wednesday without Russia for the first time since 1997.

The U.S. also has leveled sanctions against senior Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who since has discussed limiting Russia's partnership with America on the International Space Station and ​curbing sales of Russian-made space engines. Since the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle program, America pays Russia to fly astronauts to the station with Russian-made Soyuz rockets.

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"We are very concerned about continuing to develop high-tech projects with such an unreliable partner as the United States, which politicizes everything," Rogozin said in news conference, according to Reuters.

That feeling seems mutual among some in Congress, as the House recently passed a National Defense Authorization Act with $220 million set aside to help develop U.S. alternatives to space technology currently supplied by the Russians, including the RD-180 engine that powers ​the American-built Atlas V rocket.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., was among the supporters of the act because reducing reliance on Russian engines “is good for national security,” says Heather Molino, a spokeswoman for Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

America’s space flight supply chain could face shortages if Russia cannot be relied upon to ship its engines, says Gwynne Shotwell, president of the aerospace company SpaceX, which uses the Falcon 9 rocket built with American parts.

“Atlas has 38 missions to fly and they have 15 RD-180s in the country,” Shotwell says of the ​Atlas V space program run by the United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

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The ULA said in a press release that it hopes tensions with Russia are resolved, but it maintains a two-year inventory of engines to power the Atlas and enable a smooth transition to its other rocket, the Delta, which uses U.S.-produced engines.

Russia may continue delivery of RD-180 engines if they are not used "in the interests of the Pentagon," Rogozin posted on Twitter May 13.

Tensions with Russia also are impacting long-term strategies for the U.S. government and the contractors supporting them, says Celeste Ford, CEO of Stellar Solutions Inc., an aerospace engineering consulting firm.

“The near-term projects are continuing and being worked to resolution on a case-by-case basis,” Ford says. “For example, the State Department recently issued shipping licenses for two commercial satellites scheduled to launch on a Russian rocket. The Canadian government, however, has pulled a Canadian satellite from a Russian launch.”

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Private companies could more effectively supply governments with space gear and services, but obtaining federal contracts in the U.S. space sector can be difficult for some new entrants as opposed to large, established companies​, Ford says.

“Government has difficulty handling something that deviates from the way things have been in the past,” she says. “Our challenges revolve around being consolidated or bundled into large contracts under large companies who tend to maintain the status quo, rather than innovate.

"The end result is competition based on cost rather than value, which is lowering the quality of the workforce supporting the government.”