by A.J. Mackenzie
|Rogozin’s threat, then, was like a mote of dust dropped into a supersaturated solution, the triggering event to crystallize a new future.|
Many news reports in the last week made it sound like a done deal: Russia would abandon the ISS, likely bringing the partnership, and the station itself, to an end. The US and its Western partners can’t operate the station without Russia (and Russia can’t without the US), so that’s that. The reality is a little more confused, with Roscosmos suggesting it will make a decision at some later date on the future of the ISS, perhaps overlapping the station with that new Russian station.
But, perhaps, even the threat of Russia abandoning the station in the middle of this decade may be useful. To understand that, we have to go back seven years to examine the comments made by one of the most influential figures in American space policy in the last decade: Dmitry Rogozin.
It was in the spring of 2014 when the US and its allies levied sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. In response, Rogozin, deputy prime minister at the time, threatened to counter those sanctions with actions of his own, including blocking the sale of RD-180 engines to the US and denying NASA access to seats on Soyuz spacecraft that it needed to get to the ISS. (Remember the trampoline tweet?)
Those threats came at a critical time in both civil and military space programs. NASA had been trying to push ahead with the commercial crew program, but still faced congressional skepticism and funding cuts. SpaceX, meanwhile, was trying to get its foot in the door of the military launch market, at the time monopolized by United Launch Alliance, filing suit against the Air Force at around the same time.
Rogozin’s threat, then, was like a mote of dust dropped into a supersaturated solution, the triggering event to crystallize a new future. Congressional resistance to commercial crew faded as it started to fully fund, or nearly fully fund, the program. It got $805 million in fiscal year 2015, compared to a request of $848 million. By comparison, just two years earlier NASA got less than two-thirds its request for commercial crew, and the year before that, 2012, less than half.
|Bruno and ULA now talk like NewSpace evangelists, describing the industrialization of cislunar space and opening the solar system—using Vulcan Centaur, of course.|
NASA could then move forward on its plan to select two companies for development awards, giving it redundancy and protection from further delays. That was essential, allowing SpaceX to launch astronauts to the station last week for the third time in less than a year, while Boeing’s Starliner remains in the hangar after a botched test flight more than a year ago. Imagine what would have happened if reduced budgets forced NASA to go with just one company, and that company was Boeing?
The ramifications on military space launch were even greater. The Air Force and SpaceX worked out a settlement that opened up some launches to competition (many of which SpaceX won at prices far lower than ULA) while also starting efforts to fund development of new rocket engines to replace the RD-180 and new launch vehicles. Last year, SpaceX won contracts to launch more than a dozen military missions over the next several years as part of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program.
These events, though, were more transformative for ULA. In 2014 they were in danger of being disrupted by SpaceX, as they lost their monopoly on space launch and threatened to lose access to the engine that powered its workhorse Atlas V. Instead, the company disrupted itself. With a new CEO, Tory Bruno, the company took a fresh approach to a launch vehicle, ditching the usual suppliers for Blue Origin and its untried BE-4 engine for its new rocket, called Vulcan. Bruno and ULA now talk like NewSpace evangelists, describing the industrialization of cislunar space and opening the solar system—using Vulcan Centaur, of course.
That effort kept ULA relevant in this new spaceflight era, and allowed it to win a greater share of NSSL launches than even SpaceX. It wasn’t nearly as successful for Blue Origin, whose own New Glenn lost that competition and whose first flight has been delayed to at least late 2022, but at least it has business for its BE-4. Northrop Grumman’s OmegA (arguably a descendent of the Ares I) also lost, and Northrop seems to have thrown in the towel on large end of the launch market.
One could argue that reinvention of ULA was long overdue and might well have happened in any case, but the urgency created by the potential loss of the RD-180 helped make it happen sooner rather than later, and also increased the chances of success. (Maybe Bruno can send Rogozin a ULA cowboy hat as a thank-you gift.)
Those threats made by Rogozin turned out to be empty ones: NASA continued to buy Soyuz seats without interruption, and RD-180 engines continue to be sold. But they nonetheless triggered lasting changes for NASA, the Defense Department, and the companies involved in launch vehicles and commercial crew; all enabled, or at least accelerated, by the comments of a Russian politician later demoted to the head of Roscosmos.
|With a threat to the long-term future of the ISS emerging, will Congress be willing to fully fund that LEO commercialization effort, or even accelerate it?|
Those events come to mind as Russia now threatens to, in essence, end the ISS in 2025. Like Rogozin’s threats in 2014, these comments come at a critical time in the long-term planning for the future, and end, of the ISS. NASA’s strategy has been to support development of commercial modules for the ISS and commercial space stations that could one day succeed them.
Congress, though, has been even more skeptical about low Earth orbit commercialization than it was about commercial crew. In the last two years, NASA has requested $150 million for its LEO commercialization strategy but only received about a tenth of that funding. That’s forced NASA to revamp and delay those efforts. That, in turn, raises the risk that there won’t be a commercial space station ready when the ISS reaches the (natural) end of its life around the end of its decade.
Borisov’s comments might have the same effect now as Rogozin’s did seven years ago. With a threat to the long-term future of the ISS emerging, will Congress be willing to fully fund that LEO commercialization effort, or even accelerate it? Or will they see it as a bluff, given how Rogozin never followed through on his threats to cut off access to Soyuz spacecraft and RD-180 engines?
It should be, at the very least, an opportunity to shape the future of spaceflight, just as was the case seven years ago. Never let a good crisis go to waste!
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