by Taylor Dinerman
|It seems that, once again, Moscow is throwing its weight around and making life difficult for its neighbors. Does this new assertiveness make Russia a questionable partner for civil and commercial space ventures, or is it just bluster?|
On the other hand, the men who run the Kremlin are not suicidal. They are working with the US and others to try and put a lid on the nuclear and missile programs of both North Korea and Iran. The suspension, temporary or otherwise, of Russian work on Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant is a sign that they may be having second thoughts about the Islamic Republic. If they actually do end up supporting a new sanctions resolution in the UN Security Council, even if it is as weak as the latest reports indicate, it will show that they do not want to totally isolate themselves from the West.
The effort to intimidate Poland and the Czech Republic into abandoning their decision to host a modest US anti-missile system whose sole purpose is to intercept missiles from the Middle East aimed at Europe or the US seems anachronistic, to say the least. The Soviet failure to stop the US from deploying the cruise and Pershing missiles in the mid-1980s was one factor, among others, in bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union. If Moscow’s leaders think that the Eastern Europeans will allow Russia to dictate what non-nuclear weapons can or cannot be deployed on their soil, they should think again.
Polls may show that majorities in Poland and in the Czech Republic do not want the US missiles on their soil, but the elected governments of both nations show no sign of backing down. The same thing occurred in the 1980s when elections were fought on this issue in the UK, West Germany, and elsewhere. The side that had the anti-nuclear polls on their side lost, and the side that supported deployment won. The USSR, which had pushed every propaganda button it could find and did not hesitate to threaten Western states with annihilation, was shown to be a paper tiger.
Today’s Russia has four major joint space projects with the US government and US private companies. Sea Launch, which just suffered its first major accident, has long been a model of effective Russian, Ukrainian, and American cooperation and it has apparently been fairly profitable. If Russia were to back out, Boeing might seek another partner with similar skills: both Japanese and South Korean companies would probably stand in line for the chance to join the project.
Russia supplies its excellent RD-180 rocket engine to Lockheed Martin for use on the Atlas 5. This has proved to be an excellent launch vehicle and gives Russia’s space industry a steady stream of income. Neither side has any interest in ending the partnership. Due to the possible use of the Atlas 5 as a launch vehicle for cargo and perhaps even crew to the International Space Station (ISS), an increase in the flight rate of this launcher may occur sometime early in the next decade, providing Russia with an even better rate of cash flow.
The ISS is the focal point for Russia’s present role as a critical player in the world’s human spaceflight programs. The critical role played by the Soyuz and Progress vehicles in keeping the station crewed and supplied during the years when the Shuttle was grounded needs no exaggeration: they saved the project. Today, NASA has a deal to buy seats on the Soyuz capsule for $21 million each; that agreement will expire in 2011. So, between then and 2015, when the US now hopes to have the Orion spacecraft ready for service, the US will have to either come up with a COTS-based way to get Americans to and from the ISS, or ask Congress for permission to cut another deal with the Russians, or do both.
Working with the US and the other international partners on the ISS gives Russia a nearly perfect place to showcase its space professionalism. Many of the world’s top experts in all aspects of orbital operations are Russian. Not only does Russia want to make sure that all their potential customers are in a position to know just how good their people are, but the central role they play in ISS construction and operations pays off in national prestige.
|World-class space activities give proud, nationalistic Russians the chance to show the world the great things their nation can accomplish. It would take an exceptionally foolish Russian leader to throw away these relationships.|
Finally, there is the one area where Russia has once again shown itself to be a true pioneer: space tourism. Their space industry may only make twenty or at best forty million dollars a year from flying rich people back and forth to the ISS, but the payoff goes well beyond that. Every time a space tourist flies he or she proves to the world the safety and reliability of the Soyuz and, by implication, of other Russian launch vehicles. On their return space tourists themselves become spokespersons and unpaid promoters for their host’s industry. That kind of favorable publicity is literally priceless.
The West underestimated the trauma to Russia of losing the Cold War and its empire, and the determination of some of its elites to regain hegemony over the “near abroad”. One has to doubt that they are ready to do so at the cost of cutting themselves off from the world economy. The USSR fell in part because the people saw what kind of a good life could be had not just by Americans and Europeans, but also by South Koreans and middle-class Indians. Russians wanted to be normal. In the 19th century European diplomats used to tell each other, “Russia is never as strong, or as weak, as she looks.”
World-class space activities give proud, nationalistic Russians the chance to show the world the great things their nation can accomplish. These projects also allow for “normal” international interactions based on mutual commercial advantage and scientific and technological exchanges. It would take an exceptionally foolish Russian leader to throw away these relationships.