Because of Russia's sudden invasion of the Crimea, many voices are calling on Western leaders to punish Vladimir Putin's country and make it a pariah state. But strained relations with Russia could endanger space missions around the world.
The Air Force hires United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin-Boeing partnership, to launch its most critical satellites. Those often wind up atop Atlas V rockets, which feature the high-tech, Russian-made RD-180 as the heart of the launch system. How vital are these Russian engines? So much so that the Air Force is looking at licensing the design and .
These Atlas V engines have long been the subject of political tugs-of-war between Moscow and Washington. Russia has publicly considered stopping the delivery because the United States uses them for military launches. The Pentagon has responded by setting up contingencies, but most of them rely on at least some parts from Russia's Energomash.
What about the all-American SpaceX launch system, Falcon 9? SpaceX is on track to be certified by the Air Force for national security launches, but the earliest EELV-class mission SpaceX could launch would be in the . The ULA's other workhorse, the Delta IV, doesn't use Russian engines. However, this engine isn't used very often anymore and is probably more expensive to operate than the Atlas V.
U.S. Private Space
Of the three companies vying for NASA contracts to deliver astronauts to orbit, two rely on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets. Those companies, Sierra Nevada and Boeing, turned in their proposals to NASA based on that arrangement in January. The third company, SpaceX, designed it own launch hardware. If there is a disruption in the delivery of engines to ULA because of geopolitics, that could influence NASA's selection of a company to deliver astronauts to ISS.
Russia also has a hand in the private space cargo missions to ISS. Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket relies on NK-26s engines built in Russia and designed for the Soviet lunar program. However, the long-term availability of these engines is in doubt and Orbital is coming up with other options.
International Space Station
The most obvious case of our reliance on Russian hardware is the International Space Station: The Russian-operated Soyuz delivers crew and cargo there. The United States has been renting seats on the Soyuz spacecraft for about $60 million a pop since NASA ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011. A Soyuz also serves as the lifeboat in case of emergencies. If Soyuz flights are curtailed, the ISS would have to be abandoned, at least temporarily.
The Ukrainian crisis is a challenge for Europe, and the economic ties between the EU and Russia may become political tools. A good example of this can be found in French Guiana, a small South American nation where the European Union venture Arianespace operates a spaceport.
In a joint agreement, the Russians launch Soyuz missions from the jungle spaceport, taking advantage of the equatorial location to fling satellites into orbit. (The Soyuz can carry 3.3 tons of payload into orbit from this launch pad versus 1.8 tons for a launch in Russia, because the Earth's rotation is faster close to the equator.) Arianespace, in return, can offer more launches and also guard against rocket delays by switching launch vehicles. The agreement could be subject to political gestures on both sides.