House Misstep on Space Defense Could Prove Giant Leap—for Russia

August 8, 2019 Updated: August 8, 2019


Fifty years after the United States became the only nation to place a man on the moon, America’s manned space program relies heavily on a Russian space version of Uber.

Considering the two countries were on the road to mutually assured destruction a generation ago, it’s tempting to think of these powers as star-crossed lovers united at last in a post­-Cold War peace.

But love, as they say, is blind, or at least clouded with naivety. In reality, since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has spent years struggling to get its superpower legs back and pursue the same goals it had as the lead member of the USSR.

One such goal is to use dominance in today’s space race as a weapon of warfare, according to a 2019 Defense Intelligence Agency report.

Americans help Russia dominate in space when they pretend Russia wants peace on Earth. So does the U.S. government when it funds Russia’s rocket programs, and so do members of Congress intent on obstructing our own space sprint, contra the U.S. Air Force’s recommendations.

How quickly we forget Russia’s aggressions of even the past 11 years: the Russo-Georgian War, the annexation of Crimea, new Arctic territorial claims, withdrawals from arms treaties, the use of natural gas as a weapon against Ukraine and Europe, Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, a new alliance with China, and military exercises aimed directly at NATO and the United States. The latest U.S.–Russia tension includes confrontations over Venezuela and the near-collision of a Russian destroyer with the USS Chancellorsville in June. Russia is back. As tension escalates, so must the space race.

Yes, it’s déjà vu all over again, but with a bizarre twist: The U.S. space program relies on Russian rockets. In fact, Russia charges the United States nearly $80 million per seat to ferry Americans from Russia’s Cosmodrome launch facilities to the International Space Station. Russia would love to have us continue to use their launch systems, if for no other reason than as long as we use theirs, there’s a good chance we won’t be developing ours.

Just as in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as Russia moves to weaponize its space capabilities, the United States again finds itself in a precarious security position. The United States must respond to the new threat accordingly.

Fortunately, in October 2018, the Air Force awarded $2 billion in Phase 1 contracts to develop rockets under its Launch Service Agreement (LSA) program to Blue Origin’s New Glenn, Northrop Grumman’s OmegA, and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur. The new strategy is in response to congressional pressure to move away from dependence on Russian propulsion systems, including the Russian RD-180 engine currently used on U.S. rockets. Phase 2 contract proposals are due on Aug. 2.

So, there’s hope—if Congress can now resist choking out the LSA program with political and special interests. Lately, its chokehold has tightened.

Government budgets are political beasts, and the LSA program has faced political resistance, including opposition from House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who has called for comprehensive investigations. Smith also introduced legislation that would help companies like SpaceX, which has filed a lawsuit over the LSA contract awards, join the race late. (SpaceX did not win a Phase 1 award, and its billionaire founder Elon Musk admitted its proposal “missed the mark.”)

The Air Force has said Smith’s provisions would make the program less efficient, less rewarding for investors, and more political, all while possibly compromising the United States’ ability to rid itself of its dependence on Russian space capabilities by 2022 as congressionally mandated.

Dismissing Air Force concerns, the House approved Smith’s provisions by including them in HR 2500, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which the chamber passed 220­–197 on July 12. If the legislation becomes law, Americans will be one step closer to being lost in space. This misstep for Congress would prove a giant leap for Russia in the race for national security through space dominance.

The House should reconsider, taking a cue from President John F. Kennedy, who spoke before Congress on May 25, 1961, and proposed that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” America won the moon. Her safety on Earth is doubtful.

Good politics drove us to the moon. Bad politics may keep us waiting at the Cosmodrome bus stop. Winning the space race and spacefaring independence from Russia is too important to be bandied about by political and special interests.

Tony Corvo is a retired U.S. Air Force officer with a doctorate in physics and 40 years of program management, research and development, and flight test experience.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.