One of the greatest benefits of a government of divided powers is that when the executive branch fails to act in assurance of national security, Congress can step in and potentially address a problem.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote a piece in National Review criticizing the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Sanctions, I argued then, were (and would be) ineffectual — they wouldn’t stop Russia from invading and/or occupying the sovereign nation of Ukraine. Bound up in all of this was a call for the United States to stop relying on Russian-made “RD-180” rocket engines — especially when it comes to rockets being launched for national security or military purposes.
Three distinct truths are bound up in this. First, especially absent a robust reaction to Russian aggression, we should not be sending millions of dollars to Russia for vital hardware. Second, it is fundamentally foolhardy from both a policy and a political perspective to rely on Russia’s internal tech and active operations to carry Americans into space. Finally, it recognizes the very real reality that spaceflight, especially American spaceflight, is in the transitional phase, away from government-sponsored operations towards private spaceflight.
Five years ago, I spoke on this last point at a meeting of the Competitive Space Task Force on Capitol Hill. In that speech, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 14 spaceflight (the historic moonshot that delivered America’s first man in space, Alan Shepard, to the moon), I talked about how all exploration eventually moves from state-driven to state-sponsored to completely privatized (and eventually commercialized).
Yet despite these truths, there are some who want to ignore very-real realities in the pursuit of nebulous public policies. In the annual military budget bill, the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA, there is a move to rescind the prohibitions on buying Russia’s RD-180 rockets.
In the simplest terms, this would be bad. Starting with the precept that despite the anemic impact of sanctions, the idea that we would be rewarding Russia with tens of millions (if not hundreds of millions) of American dollars makes zero sense — whether from an economic, foreign policy, or national security perspective.
It’s cash that Russia desperately needs. Access to “hard currency” remains a problem for Russia despite the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago. Worse, a transfusion like this goes into the pockets of Vladimir Putin’s cronies, perpetuating the corporatist oligarchy and further strengthening Putin’s stranglehold on power.
But perhaps worst of all, the move wounds those who have invested in private space power here at home. SpaceX, working diligently to bring about both privatized and commercial space flight, has been doing wonders in this sphere (having just recently launched a rocket, and then miraculously returning it home to land on a barge in the open sea!). This is a policy decision calculated to benefit the joint venture of Boeing/Lockheed, who have been playing in the state-sponsored space sphere since the very beginning of the Space Race.
Far be it from me to commend Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but the senator has introduced an amendment to the NDAA that would stop the rescinding of the ban — effectively denying this infusion of money to Russia.
America doesn’t need Russia’s rocket engines, and we should be doing everything in our power to ensure that so long as Russia sets itself on an aggressive path, American payloads and American space crews (eventually) are carried aloft on American equipment.
Andrew Langer is President of the Institute for Liberty. He holds a degree in Soviet Studies from William & Mary and is an avid space buff.
Photo: Christopher Michel/Creative Commons