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How to Screw Your Partner in Space

No matter what happens here on Earth, the US and Russian space programs depend on the two countries continuing to work together.
Photo via NASA

Whenever the US and Russia have a spat, talking heads inevitably bring up the specter of a “new Cold War.” If the yapping continues long enough, the countries' respective space programs are eventually brought up — which naturally inspires plenty of bloviating about the Space Race. And then, if there happens to be someone there who actually knows what she's talking about, it's pointed out that the US and Russia are actually extremely dependent on each other in space. And then that person is accused of being a total buzzkill.


That need for cooperation between the two countries is very evident today, thanks to the launch of one US astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts from Kazakhstan up to the International Space Station (ISS). Ever since 2011, when the Space Shuttle was … well, let's just say "taken to a space farm where it could be happy and fly around with other space vehicles," the US, Europe, Canada, and Japan — the major non-Russian partners on the ISS — have relied on Russia to send people up to the station and bring them back down. The US plans to eventually use commercially developed vehicles to fly people back and forth, but those won’t be ready until 2017 at the earliest.

In general, countries use their civil space programs — like NASA — to promote themselves by outshining their competitors, rather than actively trying to obstruct their competitors. Space exploration is hard enough, so deliberately screwing the other guy would be a real asshole move.

On the ISS, this is doubly true. The US could operate a space station on its own (assuming it could manage to get people up and down). Russia could also operate a space station independently. However, doing so together is beneficial for everyone involved. But that togetherness is less of a marriage than it is a conjoined twins situation. Most of the station consists of modules made by either the US or Russia. The ISS relies on both Russian and US ground support. There’s no easy way for either country to take their toys and go home without creating absolute havoc.


Today, Russian rocket engines used in US-made rockets are used almost exclusively for US government payloads — including things like spy satellites no doubt used, in part, to spy on the Russians.

So the odds of Russia outright cutting off US access to the ISS is relatively low, since that might endanger the safety of all the folks on the station and even the station itself. That said, it wouldn’t be very hard for Russia to slow-roll US astronauts and gum up the bureaucratic works, which wouldn't completely muck up ISS operations. Or Russia could invite a Chinese taikonaut aboard, which would make the US go ballistic.

The US also uses Russian rockets to launch payloads into space. For years, the US has operated two main launch vehicle families — the Atlas and Delta. After the Cold War ended, someone had the bright idea to use Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines on the Atlas because, as it turns out, Russians churn out some pretty badass rocket engines. Today, these rockets are used almost exclusively for US government payloads — including things like spy satellites no doubt used, in part, to spy on the Russians.

The US engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney (P&W) actually has a license to manufacture the RD-180 in the States, and knows full well how make all the bits and do all the specialized, high-tech welding. However, as is the case with a lot of space technology, there’s the matter of the “secret sauce." The tolerances are so tight and the performance requirements are so high that minuscule differences in the manufacturing process can mean the difference between a successful launch and an unsuccessful fireworks display. And so even after P&W went through all the trouble of obtaining the licensing, setting up co-production agreements, and learning how to make the engine, it turned out that the Russian-made RD-180s were cheaper and performed better.

There tends to be an enormous difference in the life cycles of geopolitical flare-ups (relatively short) and massive new R&D efforts or major acquisitions programs (relatively long). So big a difference, in fact, that barring something like the outbreak of a major war between the US and Russia, it is extremely unlikely the current spat over Crimea will be a main driver behind any eventual change in the way anyone goes to space.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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