The SpaceX Dragon on one of its ISS resupply missions. Image: SpaceX
Russia just announced plans to shut down the International Space Station in 2020, and prohibited companies in the country from selling engines to Lockheed Martin and Boeing for military launch purposes. If this is more than just posturing, there’s at least one takeaway: SpaceX is about to get paid.
It was just a month ago that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that Russia would never ban the United States from the ISS, and that his “contingency plan” for getting astronauts to and from the ISS was to continue working with Russia as normal until an American company is ready to fly manned flights to the ISS in roughly three years.
Well, Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin’s announcement Tuesday that it plans to stop working with America on the ISS should quickly put an end to that notion.
The current announcement is a promise to stop working with the US six years from now, which isn't entirely urgent. But Bolden has to be worried about how American astronauts are going to get to and from the ISS if Russia next decides to pull out of its already-signed contracts to sell seats to Americans aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft through at least 2017. As of now, there’s no indication that Russia plans to cut the US out immediately, but the ISS is now clearly in the diplomatic playing field.
And that brings us to SpaceX. The company stands to gain greatly from both bits of news Rogozin announced today.
The company recently won (and then subsequently lost) an injunction to force the United States Air Force to compete for military satellite launch contracts. If Boeing and Lockheed Martin are blocked from buying Russian engines for their Atlas V and Delta IV from the other side (it’s worth noting that both countries have threatened to ban the companies from buying Russian engines), the Air Force once again has incentive to look at SpaceX as a legitimate option to launch military satellites.
The Air Force’s contract with the Boeing-Lockheed cooperative United Launch Alliance is worth roughly $70 billion through 2030—SpaceX could potentially swoop in and take some of that amid the uncertainty.
Then there’s the NASA angle.
As early as August, the agency is expected to select one or two American companies to fund development of potential replacements for the Russian Soyuz as astronauts’ main transportation to the ISS.
SpaceX isn’t the only one expected to bid for a NASA contract for commercial crew to ISS. But Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company has barely tested anything, and both Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing’s entries into the ISS race are expected to use Atlas V rockets—and their Russian engines. Russia's unpredictability will likely push NASA toward selecting a company that has already proven it can run the mission. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are the only ones that have, and Orbital Sciences has no plans to get into the crewed mission game.
ULA has suggested that it has a stockpile of Russian engines to continue using, and Rogozin has said that as long as companies “guarantee they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon,” the country will still sell engines to America.
But NASA is looking for a long-term partner and has already expressed interest in maintaining the ISS long past the 2020 deadline Russia has just announced.
Given the fact that SpaceX has a proven track record of getting to the ISS with American-made rockets, is the notoriously risk-averse agency willing to bet that Russia won’t eventually expand these sanctions? And is it willing to go with a company that uses Russian engines if that decision has to be made within the next three months?
I wouldn't bet on it—not when there's a local option in SpaceX.