U.S. vs. Russia: Why the Space Station Will Survive the Storm

Image: Soyuz craft

A Soyuz craft bearing the Russian flag leaves the International Space Station and heads for Earth on March 11, carrying a NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts. NASA

In the U.S.-Russian confrontation over Moscow's annexation of Crimea, there's been a lot of gnashing of American teeth over U.S. dependence on the Russians for astronaut access to the International Space Station and for rocket engines used in American space boosters.

That dependence is a big reason why space station operations were exempted from this week's suspension of contacts between NASA and the Russian Federal Space Agency.

But recent events in Russia's own program are a reminder that dependence is a two-way street — and that Russia, not the United States, is far more seriously challenged by cutoff of access to Western space technology.

Just days ago, Russian space officials admitted to another serious outage in Russia's only geosynchronous weather satellite, Elektro-L. Launched three years ago, it is still undergoing testing due to sensor and control issues, and Russian national weather forecasters must still purchase cloud-cover images of their own country from foreign satellite operators.

Also this week, Russia's navigation satellite system, GLONASS, suffered an embarrassing 12-hour service outage due to "operator error" in the ground control center. And last week, a U.S.-Russian crew had to abort a fast-track approach to the space station after an onboard autopilot glitch. They fell back on a time-tested but time-consuming two-day approach profile, and docked successfully.

Years of lagging behind

These hiccups — and even bigger failures — have dogged the Russian program for many years. But the only result has been the periodic firing of the space program head and his replacement with a new military general tasked with imposing stricter discipline. The latest sacking occurred only a few months ago. Each time, there is also a bureaucratic shuffle of the Russian space industry's facilities.

Most seriously, Russian industry has proven incapable of producing electronics components of sufficient quality for space vehicles, both civilian and military. Upwards of 80 percent of all such components in Russian satellites are foreign-made. It's a similar story for the components that go into simple items such as GLONASS' ground user handsets, which rely on computer chips from India and elsewhere.

As a result, farsighted Russian space strategists lament that in the global market for space services, which amounts to perhaps $200 billion, Russia is a contender only in launch services — which makes up just 3 percent of the total market. And even in that category, Russia has only a third of the world market share.

Co-dependence on the station

On the International Space Station, the reluctant co-dependence of Russia and the United States is stabilizingly symmetric. While the U.S. must temporarily rely on Russian vehicles to send astronauts to space, the Russians must rely on the U.S. for anywhere useful to go to once the astronauts get there.

Image: Space station
Operations on the International Space Station are dependent on U.S.-built solar arrays. NASA via AP file

U.S. hardware provides critical communications and electrical power to the Russian segment's modules, and both segments back each other up on essential life support systems. This has been a valuable contributor to the robustness of the station design against random failures — but it's not a critical requirement.

The station's Russian components were critical during early stages of assembly, 15 years ago. They still provide several sole-source capabilities such as orbital boost against air drag, or occasional debris-dodging rocket burns such as the one performed on Thursday. But the Russians have suffered delay after delay in their quest to deploy space hardware that matches U.S. capabilities.

Who would be hurt more?

In the nearly inconceivable worst-case scenario, where Russia would move to detach their modules and fly off into a new orbit, they would face far more challenges than the U.S. would.

For NASA, it'd be merely a question of accelerating the commercial crew vehicles now in final development, and deploying a propulsion system module or even an already-designed electromagnetic tether "orbital motor" for raising the station's orbit.

But for Russia, it would require delivery of the years-delayed Luch space-to-space communications network and the Nauka scientific module in order to attain even minimal operational levels, on what would be a house-trailer-sized outpost with equipment that's almost two decades old.

Against all reason, such scenarios are now marginally conceivable, and NASA ought to have a small team brainstorming the priority of possible responses. But the smart money still says that the International Space Station will weather the political storms down on Earth, just like the fictional U.S.-Soviet spaceship in the movie "2010." Outer space is a severe punisher of foolishness and pretense and posturing, and people who operate there all understand this.