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SPACE NEWS, September 9, 2002, page 15: Are Russian Space Bargains Really Such A Good Deal?

by: James Oberg

Western customers have enjoyed short-term benefits from recent purchases of Russia’s space expertise, but the almost $5 billion that has been transferred to Russia over the past decade may have unwittingly constrained future Western space options, particularly in the United States.

Russia provides reliable, cheap space flight services for Western customers. This makes possible space activities ranging from bargain-basement rocket engines, to cheaper satellite launchings, to servicing the international space station.

In turn, Western money funds the entire Russian civil and military space program, allowing its infrastructure to be upgraded and providing critical support for training the next generation of Russian space workers. This cash flow, little noticed in the West but crucial to the future of Russia’s space industry, is on the order of $600 million to $800 million per year.

The atrophy of Western space capabilities caused by reliance on cheaper Russian services may lead to serious technological and diplomatic disadvantages once the Russian economy is again strong enough to not require Western cash. Russia may wind up with significant influence — and even control — over key Western projects.

The mutual interdependence of the world’s space activities has expanded, which was the main diplomatic intent of many participants from the beginning. A theory of international relations known as functionalism maintains that mutual reliance can foster more friendly relations among nations.

Consequently, the international space station was designed to be impossible to operate or maintain without Russian participation, and now probably would fall from the sky within a year of a Russian withdrawal.

Commercial Russian launchers keep launch prices low enough to enhance the competitiveness of Western commercial satellites. Even the plutonium batteries for U.S. deep space probes come from Russia since the equivalent U.S. production facilities have been scrapped.

However, and this is the catch, the interdependence appears to be strikingly asymmetrical. As the West realizes that the Russians could do much better without the West than the West could do without Russia, the dynamics of diplomacy become skewed in Russia’s favor.

Russia’s tiny cash contribution to the international space station may, because of the leverage of Russian space monopolies, become a controlling share. This is made more ironic by the embarrassing fact that Russia’s modest investments are almost entirely financed with Western money.

The Western public does not fully appreciate the degree to which Western money has saved Russia’s space program from collapse. And the consequences to the future of Western space activities are also poorly understood.

In the early 1990s, Russia’s Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan was shriveling from neglect. But the arrival of Western customers didn’t merely prevent the demise of the space and missile center, it extensively modernized it. On its World Wide Web site, the French firm Starsem notes the company has improved the launch pads and facilities for booster preparation, payload processing and payload integration at Baikonur. These processing facilities now also support the launch of Russian military communications and reconnaissance satellites.

Similarly, European funds helped expand the infrastructure at the military space center at

Plesetsk, north of Moscow, which in turn allowed the Russians to transfer some military missile testing there from Baikonur. The Germans spent $40 million to convert and renovate a launch pad at the Plesetsk space base, and to build a new assembly facility for commercial satellites — and Russian military ones as well.

Other pads support medium and heavyweight RS-22 and RS-20 missiles, and modified versions of the new Topol intercontinental ballistic missile.

Russia is not just selling whole rockets, it is selling key components, particularly rocket engines. Russian engineers excel at building high-efficiency, high-pressure engines for both military missiles and space boosters. When Lockheed Martin rocket designers went looking for low-cost,

high-performance engines for new Atlas 3 and Atlas 5 space boosters, American rocket engine designers had not built a major new engine since the 1970s, so it was no surprise when a Russian company won the contract over three U.S. competitors.

The Russian RD-180 engine comes from the Energomash factory in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. In a deal with the U.S. firm Pratt & Whitney, over the next 10 years Energomash will sell

100 engines at about $10 million each. Because U.S. military planners were nervous about relying on space boosters with critical components from Russia, Lockheed Martin promised that Pratt & Whitney would develop its own engine production capability at its Palm Beach, Fla., factory.

However, officials estimate that it would take at least three years from ground-breaking to first unit production, so when the first U.S. government payload is launched on an Atlas 5, it will have to use a Russian-built engine. All my attempts to learn when — or if — an American-built RD-180 will ever fly met with failure.

About two-thirds of Energomash’s income is now derived from Western purchases. These and other investments are contributing to the Angara booster project, which Russian space experts see as their next-generation space launch mainstay. The project envisages a series of rockets with common stages and engines. It is being built by the Khrunichev center with help from Western launch companies. All Angara versions will rely on an Energomash engine called the RD-191, a modification of the RD-180.

Millions are also flowing into the budgets of Russian space teams to fund research such as the recently touted joint Mars mission. The idea here is to prevent technology transfer to rogue states, but it is another sham. Russia is facing a demographic crisis as the average age of its space workers exceeds the male life expectancy, and the only way to hire younger workers is to bluff Western governments into paying for phony protection from technology transfer.

The reason the protection is an illusion is that the specialists needed by third world weapons programs were laid off a decade ago by the hundreds of thousands, as Soviet military missile programs were canceled. The old men now left in the Russian space industry have no weapons-critical skills to sell abroad, but they have proven adept at surviving off the technology transfer

boogeyman while their unemployed military compatriots remain at large (and cheaply priced) for hire anywhere.

The future of the international space station is also in doubt, as NASA’s flubbed budgets (audited by Arthur Andersen, it should have been no surprise to learn) wound up at least $5 billion in the red. That has led to the cancellation of plans to expand the station beyond the maintenance crew of three. That in turn repudiates agreements with European, Japanese and Canadian partners.

But even as the Russians continue to squeeze off their low-budget support at about $125 million per year, or about 2 percent of what the U.S. and its other partners spend, they have come up with offers to rescue the station — at a price.

The station’s limit of three crewmembers is set by the number of seats on the Soyuz rescue capsule. NASA’s plan to build a larger ‘rescue capsule’ to handle 6 or 7 people has now drowned in red ink.

The Russian commitment to provide Soyuz capsules every six months runs out in a few years, but they have offered to sell NASA as many as are needed for $65 million apiece. NASA has said it intends to bargain with Russia to reduce that cost. But it is a seller’s market, and NASA finds itself over a barrel because of its own design and bookkeeping skills.

Russia also has promised to supply automated cargo ships to support the space station, but has been cutting back on them year by year (money problems are their excuse). To break the Russian monopoly, NASA is encouraging the Europeans to build their own automated supply ship, to be launched on a European rocket. But to save money, the Europeans are buying their rendezvous and docking expertise from … the Russians.

As for the expanded accommodations to be installed aboard the space station to handle the larger crew, those too have busted NASA’s budget. So the Russians have offered to provide an extra module or two for free (they turn out to be backup hardware that had been funded by NASA in the late 1990s) provided the Russians get to commercialize them for Russia’s benefit. For the sake of short-term savings and the appearance of economy, NASA and many other Western space efforts mortgaged their future space independence.

That bill is starting to come due at last. The hard solution, the path Congress and other outside experts told NASA to follow a decade ago, is to work with the Russians as partners to enhance, but not enable, the space station. NASA and the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton explicitly promised to follow that strategy, and did not do so. The leaders who made those choices are now gone, and their successors are faced with fixing the consequences.

Meanwhile, thanks to Western money, the future for Russian space capabilities is not so bleak after all. As their economy improves and their global goals shift, they can formulate new strategies for civil and military space activity. They will have new, improved space launchers, and rebuilt space bases and factories. They will have a new generation of workers. They will have a powerful (and potentially stand-alone, if they ever want to unhook from the U.S. segment) space station. And all of that is courtesy of Western money. What a bargain!


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