SpaceX proved itself just in time to save NASA a huge headache

Space has always been a geopolitical battleground, from the first Soviet satellite to the brewing space race between China and the United States. This time, thanks to SpaceX, NASA can avoid the thorny issue of Russian sanctions that have just been announced following the invasion of Ukraine by this country.

Among the sanctions announced by US President Joe Biden on Thursday was a ban on high-tech and aerospace technology exports, which will almost certainly disrupt space cooperation efforts between the two countries, including the operation of the International Space Station. (ISS) .

While there are still a host of implications for space to consider given recent developments, there is at least one thing NASA won’t have to worry about: clumsily asking to do stop aboard a Russian rocket to bring its astronauts to the ISS.

Until recently, NASA relied on Russia to get into space

After the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, NASA had no means of transporting astronauts from American soil to space, so it had to turn to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, and book a passage on its Soyuz rockets and at a rather hefty bonus. .

Although this is not in itself harmful – we have in fact want to these kinds of mixed flights between nations – it was expensive because the Soyuz rocket is not a very efficient system and has many similarities to NASA space operations before 2012.

The Soyuz family of rockets (first introduced in 1966) are “expendable” rockets that are discarded and burn up in the atmosphere or crash into the ocean after exhausting their fuel.

Naturally, that’s an expensive proposition, and NASA used to pay Roscosmos up to $90 million for a seat on its rocket launches. It also got NASA into trouble, as getting on a geopolitical rival’s rocket is subject to a number of choke points where Russia could effectively cut off NASA’s access to space in the event of a conflict, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

SpaceX docking with the ISS on March 31, 2020

(Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX’s Dragon Crew took off just in time for NASA

Given the cost of expendable rocket systems and the risk of paying a rival space agency for rocket flights, it’s understandable that NASA is looking for a better solution.

It hasn’t been cheap either. NASA has chosen two companies to compete for the chance to send astronauts back to space from American soil: SpaceX and Boeing.

NASA has spent billions of dollars on contracts with the two companies to develop crewed spaceflight, with SpaceX being the first of the two in 2020 to have its crew capsule certified to carry astronauts into space and dock at the ISS.

Boeing, on the other hand, was unable to get its Starliner crew capsule to successfully dock with the ISS, let alone get a crew there. Had NASA relied on longtime partner Boeing for crewed missions, it would still be waiting for Boeing to prove its capsule can do the job right now, which would make Thursday’s sanctions announcement a deal breaker. major head for the agency.

It is almost certain that any sanction would have exempted NASA space passengers on Russian rockets if that was the only option available. However, Russia could still have made negotiating such flights a major issue. You think a 90 million dollar ticket was expensive? There’s no reason Russia hasn’t doubled or tripled that price right now.

Fortunately, after funding SpaceX to the tune of more than $5 billion over the past few years, NASA doesn’t have to worry about the war and peace policy that keeps its astronauts on the ground indefinitely.

Will Roscosmos be cut off from the next generation of space technology?

Not only is SpaceX preventing NASA from making uncomfortable and costly deals with Roscosmos right now, but Roscosmos stands to lose even more than a significant source of revenue.

First, SpaceX offers a cheaper alternative to NASA, so the revenue stream that Roscosmos was getting from NASA has completely dried up, with the last NASA-contracted flight on a Soyuz rocket blasting off in 2020. was actually easy money that Roscosmos could spend on building rockets and improving its systems. Now that money will have to come from elsewhere.

The loss of income from space ferries is not Roscosmos’ only problem. The agency recently admitted that the SpaceX Dragon Crew capsule is safe enough for Russian cosmonauts, opening the door for Russia to book passage on SpaceX flights instead of using its own aging and expendable rocket system.

These missions could now be threatened by US sanctions, which ban the export of high-tech and aerospace products to Russia, specifically targeting that country’s advanced technology sectors, such as space operations.

We’ve reached out to NASA’s Office of Space Operations to find out if Thursday’s sanctions will prevent cosmonauts from flying on SpaceX and will update this story if we hear from the agency.

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Not only will SpaceX likely be barred from doing business with Roscosmos as many had hoped, but it’s hard to see how Roscosmos will be able to develop reusable rockets on its own when the United States currently has a monopoly on this technology.

The savings from reusable rockets frees up a lot of money for more ambitious space missions, like a moon base and even missions to Mars. Reusable rockets also make private development in low Earth orbit possible. Being cut off from this technology in the short to medium term pretty much cedes the development of low Earth orbit to the United States and a very ambitious China.

Roscosmos could absolutely develop this technology on its own – they have some of the best rocket scientists in the world, after all, and they are already working on a partially reusable Soyuz-7 rocket design – but it will take a long time to get going, while that SpaceX and others are pushing the boundaries of the technology even further.

In the meantime, Roscosmos is striving to get to where SpaceX was five years ago, and even in the best-case scenario, such operations weren’t expected until 2026. Now, with sanctions on their tech operations sector and spatial, this window will be pushed back even further.

As a result, Russia stands to lose what is about to become Space 2.0, as the United States and China take the lead in the next generation of space technology and development.

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