Elon Musk is on to something. Again.
Mr. Musk, the entrepreneur behind PayPal, Tesla Motors and Space X has filed a lawsuit to prevent United Launch Alliance from buying Russian rocket motors to power vehicles used to — among other things — put U.S. spy satellites in orbit. The motor in question is the RD-180, a product of Russia’s NPO Energomash, a quasi-governmental company. ULA uses the motors on the Atlas V rocket, used to loft our heaviest satellites.
You read that right. We rely on Russian equipment to launch our satellites, including those run by the Department of Defense. The problem is, our partner has proven unreliable. Last week, amid U.S. and European sanctions on Russia following its thuggery in Ukraine, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters that Russian engines can be used only to “launch civilian payloads.” Rogozin is, not incidentally, one of the 11 Russian kleptocrats the Obama Administration targeted in their sanctions.
More troubling, Rogozin noted that cooperation on the International Space Station will end in 2020, four years earlier than planned. This is a problem because at present, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only vehicle capable of bringing astronauts to the station.
How did we end in this ludicrous situation? The RD-180 imbroglio can be traced back to a sole-source, no-bid contract for launch service the Pentagon gave to ULA in December of last year. At the time, no one involved seemed overly concerned about putting all our eggs in the Russian basket. Now, however …
Official Washington, including the Pentagon and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, have reacted in typical fashion: NASA and ULA have attacked the Space X suit, calling it “a distraction.” The Pentagon has said they’re not worried — ULA has plenty of spare engines on hand. And in any case, Mr. Musk’s suit was a few days too late; right or not, it should be thrown out on a technicality. Nothing to see here, folks …
A ULA spokesperson went so far as to blame the current pickle on Space X’s “irresponsible” lawsuit, rather than conceding the company’s own questionable judgment in using a potentially fickle supplier. Perhaps the fact that the middleman in the lucrative engine sale was a joint partnership between Energomash and a ULA firm had something to do with her myopia.
Penny-pinching aside, is there any good reason to outsource America’s spacefaring capabilities to a country whose goals are often at cross-purposes to our own? Blather about “resets” aside; self-delusion about “making Russia part of Europe” aside; vain hopes about creating liberal democracy in a place whose history is founded on thuggish behavior aside; why did anyone think this a good idea?
We were not the first into space, but when we were challenged, we responded with alacrity. In less than a decade we sent men to the moon and retrieved them — not once, but several times. We flew many robots to nearby planets. We created two space stations. We built reusable space planes and, for almost two decades, placed them in orbit so often that when there were tragedies we reacted as though we had forgotten that space travel is an inherently dangerous business.
Then we got distracted and lazy. We found others to build machines for us. We turned from the challenge of the road to space and the moon; from doing hard things, because even the attempt is rewarding. Difficulty now frightens us and panics our leaders. We’ve lost our way, forgetting that if a nation isn’t seeking new horizons, it’s waiting for the rot to start. So today, we stick out our thumb by the side of the road to the Cosmos, and hope for the best.
This isn’t who we are. Some wish we were, but we aren’t. So Elon Musk’s lawsuit has a larger point: we should dream big again. We should encourage domestic spacefaring capability through open competition, and demand domestic sourcing — at least for the strategic part of the program. We should lay ambitious plans for human travel in our solar system. We should enlarge the International Space Station, and we should at very least develop a robust capacity to go there ourselves.
Yes, it will require more funding. But if the government relied less on crony capitalists and restricted payments to people who don’t work; if it eliminated the most egregious subsidies to inefficiency and incompetence, and stopped buying votes with public funds, perhaps the money could be found. Perhaps the unemployed with skills and drive could find jobs and purpose. Perhaps national pride would return.
And we could again live in an age of wonders we have made, rather than paying the Russians for admission.
Morgan Liddick lives in Summit County.