How Russian relations could spell the end of the US space program

Imagine a professional football team relying on another football team to train its players, transport its equipment and develop its plays. This system may work fine — until one team needs to beat the other.

This is what is happening between the United States and Russia. We are allowing Russia to partially train our astronauts, send our equipment into space and even have access to technology that could be vital to a future space race.  Because our friendship is uncertain with Russia, so is this really the best policy for the United States’ space interests? 

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Since the retiring of the Space Shuttle program, the United States has been using Russia’s Soyuz rockets as its primary vehicle to launch our equipment and our astronauts into space. While this alliance allows the U.S. to keep a presence in near-space, the cost of doing so is increasing. NASA pays $81 million per-astronaut for a ride to the International Space Station , an increase of over 370 percent in just 10 years. At this rate, the cost to NASA will soon be in the billions of dollars range just to get our astronauts to space on struggling rockets.

Space exploration is vital to U.S. security. It is estimated that there are quintillions of dollars in minerals in the asteroid belt alone, a prize valuable enough to commence a second space race. The bad news for the U.S. is that it has already begun. Herein lies the problem: America is racing against the Russians and the Chinese. The Europeans and other countries have space programs but largely rely on one of the three big players for major projects. As the U.S. competes against the Russians and the Chinese in the space race, it cannot rely on them for transport. This is a dangerous game as the Russians could shut down our access to space missions in short order.

One alternative that we have is funding the private sector in the United States. SpaceX expects its Crew Dragon capsule to be ready for testing in 2019. Boeing also anticipates that its CST-100 Starliner casual will be ready in the coming year. Both companies estimate that the cost will be under $60 million per astronaut, which is a savings of over 25 percent compared to the Russian Soyuz. With the understanding that Russia’s rockets are antiquated in design and managed by a rival nation, the need to support the domestic space program rather than a rival in what could be the most important exploration race in human history becomes even clearer. 

Policymakers must also remember that they cannot rely on the private sector alone for space exploration. Companies like SpaceX have a record of falling behind schedule, and in a race being in second place is being the first loser. Congress needs to end partisan bickering and begin protecting the interests of the people of the United States. If SpaceX and Boeing are going to continue getting funding for these vital projects, then the Congress needs to ensure that these projects are kept on track, all the while ensuring that the companies have what they need to complete the projects on time. 

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While Washington can continue monitoring SpaceX and Boeing’s progress and doing everything it can to help them succeed, things outside of their control can still happen. That is why NASA must continue building its Space Launch System to provide backup transportation to the International Space Station as needed. Not only will it serve as an insurance policy on the innovation coming from the private sector, but it will also allow the U.S. to reach further into the solar system than ever before. As NASA has repeated time and time again, it “is essential to NASA’s deep-space exploration endeavors” and is designed “to meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs.”

Humanity is ready to take its next step out into the stars.  The question is will this mission be led by the democratic capitalist beliefs of the United States and the Western World, the oligarchs of Russia or the communist systems of China? Now it is time for the United States to show the world that we are the superpower of the future and invest in the space race to go for the big win.

Christopher Smithmyer is an adjunct professor of business at Penn State University in their World Campus and an adjunct professor of Business at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Business School. Smithmyer’s research focuses on conflict management, specifically the history of US-Russia relations and its potential impact.