Red Star

U.S. Spy Satellites Riding Russian Rockets into Space

The space-launch business shows just how difficult it is to make sense of sanctions aimed at Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

When a Soyuz space capsule touched down in Kazakhstan this week with two Russians and American Astronaut Mike Hopkins aboard after 166 days in orbit on the International Space Station, a small irony was obvious. While they’d been floating around in a gravity-free model of international cooperation, their governments had been plunging toward a major confrontation over the future of Ukraine.

But the even greater irony evident out there in space is the extent to which America’s satellites—including the super-secret birds sent aloft by the National Reconnaissance Office—depend on Russian-built engines to get into orbit in the first place.

Remember the Space Race of the 1960s? Remember Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan in the 1980s to put so much super expensive spy-in-the-sky and missile defense hardware up there that the Russians wouldn’t have a prayer of getting past it?

Well, forget all that. The United States doesn’t get its astronauts or its spy satellites into orbit these days without vital Russian help.

As Washington and Brussels continue to contemplate various sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s expanding Russian empire here on Earth, there are few better examples than the satellite business to show the tangled global interdependence that makes pressuring Putin a problem for American and European interests even in a vital strategic sphere.

At the Satellite 2014 Conference in Washington, D.C. this week, industry professionals waxed hyperbolic about the importance of their businesses. “This is probably the least known industry that has the greatest impact on the human race,” Christopher Stott, president of the firm ManSat, told The Daily Beast. “We are the communications background for the whole human race.”

Stott’s company manages access to “the orbital spectrum” of communication with satellites. His wife Nicole Stott is an American astronaut. He likes to point out the role satellites play in everything from agriculture to mining, global positioning, weather prediction, helping to discover new resources and protect old ones. And like many others in the business, Stott accepts the Russian role as both inevitable and ordinary. After the collapse of Communism, he says, “they became more capitalist than the United States.”

In the 1990s, American and European engineers recognized that Russian-built rockets were very reliable—a little like the famously hardy Kalashnikov rifles—and they could also be had much more cheaply than those made in the USA or Europe. The Russians began to develop their launch industry as a commercial enterprise centered on the Baikonur facility in Kazakhstan. And Europe’s ArianeSpace, which now puts up about 60 percent of the birds shot into orbit, added Soyuz rockets to its array of launch vehicles.

“Space is a world of cooperation,” ArianeSpace CEO Stéphane Israël told The Daily Beast. But when it comes to American national security, business is not just business—and American government launches, including those for the NRO, are a bigger business than all other commercial launches combined. The Europeans want to get a piece of that action if they can, Israël said, but they have been barred by legislation limiting the work to American companies.

For decades the United States government has preferred to use the Atlas V rockets now flown by United Launch Alliance, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture. But those Atlas engines, known as RD-180s, are made by Moscow.

Elon Musk, the founder of the American-based private launching company, SpaceX, underlined the problem last week before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. Musk, a very canny Canadian-American businessman best known as the entrepreneur behind the Tesla luxury electric car, noted that his SpaceX launch vehicles are designed and manufactured in California and Texas, and launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base or Cape Canaveral.

“In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties,” said Musk, “the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing ‘assured access to space’ for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.”

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According to industry sources, at least eight of the NRO’s spy satellites launched since 2007 have gone up on top of the Russian-built rockets.

ULA, on the defensive, issued a statement saying it “maintains more than a two-year supply of RD-180 engines in the United States to minimize potential supply disruptions,” and has been developing the ability to produce them domestically. It has other rockets it can use, it said, but it also noted that the Russians have always honored their delivery commitments.

As the Ukraine crisis continues, many analysts talk about the return of the Cold War. Ah, if only things were that simple.