US Should Stop Relying on Russian Rockets

A Russian Soyuz 2.1a rocket carrying Lomonosov, Aist-2D and SamSat-218 satellites lifts off from the launch pad at the new Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Uglegorsk, about 200 kms from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region on April 28, 2016.

A Russian Soyuz 2.1a rocket carrying Lomonosov, Aist-2D and SamSat-218 satellites lifts off from the launch pad at the new Vostochny cosmodrome outside the city of Uglegorsk, about 200 kms from the city of Blagoveshchensk in the far eastern Amur region on April 28, 2016. (Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Most Americans still believe that the U.S. won the space race. Images of that summer night in 1969 of astronaut Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, and uttering the words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” still resonate. Unfortunately, we can no longer get there from here—at least not without Russian help.

Since the 1990s American astronauts—and more importantly, American spy and communications satellites—have been dependent on Russian-made rockets to launch our spacecraft.

America’s reliance on the American Atlas V rocket and its Russian-built RD-18O engine began in 2000 under President Bill Clinton. It was a period of warming relations between the two nations, best exemplified by the International Space Station. (NASA has a contract with the Russians to continue sending Americans to the Space Station through June 2020.) Unfortunately, our own rocket engine capabilities began to atrophy. The Air Force, which is responsible for sending most of our satellites into space, has, since 2006, subcontracted that responsibility to a private venture called United Launch Alliance—a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. ULA uses the Russian RD-180 engine to power its Atlas-V rockets.

Since the 1990s American astronauts—and more importantly, American spy and communications satellites—have been dependent on Russian-made rockets to launch our spacecraft.

“What were we thinking? It’s clear now that relying on Russia for rocket engines was a policy based on hope, not good judgment,” said Michael V. Hayden, a four-star Air Force general who headed the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency before his retirement in 2009.

There are two problems with this reliance on Russian technology. First, Mr. Putin could decide tomorrow to stop providing the heavy-lift engines. Second, the company that produces the RD-180 is owned by several of Mr. Putin’s cronies.

In 2014, Congress finally awoke to the vulnerability of Russian reliance—and the pocketing of billions in profits by several of Mr. Putin’s associates—but development has been slow, and at times thwarted by senators with American subcontractors benefitting from Russian crumbs.

The Obama administration has been looking for alternatives, but much too slowly. One option already exists: the all-U.S.-made Delta IV, which costs more than the RD-180. Until other alternatives—such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, the BE-4 from Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin (which is a methane engine) and the AR1 from Aerojet Rocketdyne (which uses a kerosene engine)—we need to fund the Delta IV.

It is time for America to once again find the right stuff.

US Should Stop Relying on Russian Rockets