Pentagon Blames Congress For Fouling Up Rocket Deals With Russia

Geopolitical positioning system

Atlas V Rocket

Atlas V Rocket

Christian Thomas, U.S. Air Force photo, via Wikimedia Commons

Space makes for strange relationships. With NASA’s Space Shuttle shuttered since 2011, American astronauts have hitched rides to the International Space Station inside Russian Soyuz rockets for the past four years. But ever since Russia claimed Crimea and supported a separatist movement in Ukraine, the United States and Russia haven’t exactly been on great terms. Congress passed punitive sanctions on Russia, and in retaliation, Russia forbade the sale of rocket engines to the American military.

Yet the Pentagon, which is currently supplying the Ukrainian military with vehicles, now needs a little help getting its military satellites to space. So it's asking Congress to ease sanctions on Russia so that the American military can buy rocket engines from the country again.

The Russian ban itself has a distinct end goal. The country banned the export of their rockets to the United States--specifically those being used to launch military payloads. There's a direct application to this: The U.S. is sharing some satellite imagery with the Ukrainian military, who are using it against Russian-backed separatists.

The ban poses a problem for all military satellite endeavors. The Air Force relies largely on the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture by Boeing and Lockheed. As American as those companies are, they launch satellites into space on Atlas V rockets, which repurpose old Russian RD-180 rocket engines. That means ULA needs a steady import of Russian rockets, which they're legally prohibited from acquiring. To work around this issue, the Air Force just approved SpaceX as a second, alternative supplier to carry their satellites into space. SpaceX can bid on contracts now, included one for GPS satellite delivery that closes this month, but without the rocket engines from Russia, it's possible that United Launch Alliance won't be able to compete for those contracts, and the Pentagon could go back to just having a single orbital supplier.

This leaves us at the present, with a very perplexing situation: The Pentagon, aiding Ukraine’s military, wants Congress to ease sanctions on Russia, so that Russia can sell the Pentagon rockets again, which the Pentagon can then use for spy satellites, whose images the Pentagon may pass along to the Ukrainian military.

Maybe it’ll just be easier to wait for SpaceX to launch the satellites instead.