Heightened tensions between Russia and the U.S. are hampering their cooperation in space, adding to the problems of an American space industry reeling from the crashes of two commercial spacecraft this fall, Philipp Shishkin writes in the Wall Street Journal, Censor.NET reports.
Russia is a critical player in the business of carrying payloads into orbit, from communications satellites for Western companies to American astronauts traveling to the international space station.
But after Moscow grabbed Crimea from Ukraine in March, the U.S. State Department temporarily stopped issuing licenses for exporting sensitive defense-related technologies to Russia, including satellites, as part of broader sanctions imposed against the Kremlin. And in September, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced plans for two U.S. companies to build spacecraft to carry American astronauts to the space station, reducing its reliance on Russia.
But questions have cropped up about the capabilities of the budding commercial-space industry after October's explosion of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. rocket destined for the space station and the deadly crash of a Virgin Galactic LLC spacecraft. The Orbital rocket was powered by a refurbished Soviet-designed engine. The company now says the use of these engines "likely will be discontinued."
The U.S. technology-licensing freeze jolted International Launch Services, which is based in Reston, Va., and controlled by the Russian government. The company uses Russian rockets, originally designed to carry nuclear warheads, to launch satellites that beam SiriusXM radio to American cars and provide broadband to the U.S. Navy, among other missions.
International Launch Services and its clients pressed the U.S. government to reconsider the satellite portion of the freeze, according to company President Philip Slack, a former Boeing executive. In May, the State Department exempted commercial satellites from the suspension.
U.S.-Russian cooperation in space has been "very visible, and it's very symbolic. How long that can be insulated from the larger tensions in the relationship is unclear," said Scott Pace, a former NASA official now at George Washington University.
The $5.4 billion-a-year market for commercial-satellite launches depends heavily on Russian rockets, and the recent political pressure has sparked concerns about their supply over the long term. In addition, the reputation of those rockets has been marred by a string of failures.
Since the 1990s, American satellites have been banned from traveling to space aboard Chinese rockets, barring a presidential waiver. The ban was part of Washington's sanctions against Beijing for the 1989 military crackdown on protesters on Tiananmen Square. Later, the U.S. became concerned about China's role in weapons proliferation and industrial espionage.
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For now, Western satellite companies are hoping the crisis in Ukraine and the U.S. sanctions go no further. "It could all change in a heartbeat. It's difficult to predict," said an executive with a European satellite company. "We are keeping an eye on the geopolitical situation."
Over the years, Moscow and Washington have developed a symbiotic arrangement in space, ever since the 1975 "handshake in space" celebrating the first joint U.S.-Soviet space mission. When the Cold War ended, Washington was eager to find ways to keep Russian space scientists and engineers occupied with Western-oriented work, in part to make it less likely they would provide services and products to unfriendly states.
There was a commercial rationale, too. Soviet engineers had developed dependable ways of getting stuff into space, and, in some cases, it was cheaper and easier to buy Soviet-built products than design American alternatives from scratch.
The international space station is funded and operated jointly by the U.S., Russia and other nations. After the U.S. suspended its space-shuttle program in 2011 because of cost and safety concerns, American astronauts have been traveling to the space station on Russian rockets.
Congress recently asked NASA to clarify its space-station plans in light of "serious questions" about the future of U.S.-Russia space cooperation. Moscow has sent mixed signals about its commitment to the project. In September, NASA picked Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX, to build spacecraft to carry American astronauts to the space station starting in 2017.
International Launch Services, known as ILS, began in the 1990s as a joint venture between Lockheed Corp., now Lockheed Martin , and a Russian design lab known as Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center. The Russians eventually acquired full control. The company markets one product: the Proton rocket developed in the 1960s as part of the Soviet fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It launches them from Kazakhstan.
Over the years, ILS and a French rival, Arianespace SA, have grown to dominate the market for launching heavy satellites, although SpaceX is starting to compete.
Separately, SpaceX has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to try to force it to end its reliance on Russian-built engines to power American rockets that take sensitive military payloads to space. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in July the military wants to end its reliance on Russian engines "as soon as we can."
Meanwhile, safety issues have cropped up with Proton rockets. In May 2013, a Proton carrying Russian government payloads crashed within seconds of takeoff because some speed censors had been installed incorrectly, a Russian probe later found. The failure-the fifth in as many years-spooked satellite companies that do business with ILS, which uses Proton rockets. Customers pay ILS up to $95 million a launch.
When the State Department suspended defense-related exports earlier this year, ILS and its customers launched a lobbying effort. One notable client is Inmarsat PLC, a British company rolling out a trio of U.S.-made satellites to provide high-speed broadband to the U.S. military, among others. Inmarsat already had launched one satellite with ILS, and had the other two waiting for liftoff. By May, the State Department lifted the suspension. Inmarsat declined to comment.
In May, around the time the State Department exempted satellites from the export freeze, another Proton rocket, also on a Russian government mission, crashed because of engine failure. "Proton has had more failures than it should, without a doubt," says Mr. Slack, the ILS president. Mr. Slack says his bosses in Moscow are working hard to fix the problems.
This summer, ILS laid off a quarter of its staff to compensate for fewer orders.
Then another problem surfaced: The Russian government was jumping ahead of ILS customers in the launch queue. Russian state missions use the same Proton rockets, and by Russian law, the Kremlin has priority over commercial customers.