The Great Space Race

One of the great axioms of war is that it has unintended consequences. When Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled off the slickest invasion of a country in more than 100 years by taking over Crimea in March last year, he undoubtedly had no idea that he was about to launch the United States on a path of rocket superiority.

The sad truth is that Russia and China are the only countries in the world that can launch a human being into space. But it’s worse than that. The vast majority of military missions into space in the last decade have ridden there on Russian rocket engines. We abandoned extraordinary rocket superiority by killing off the Saturn V program, a decision President Richard M. Nixon made in the early 1970s when he chose to build the space shuttle instead of going to Mars, as proposed by NASA and Wernher von Braun. We have relied on Russian rocket engines for much of what we get into orbit since then.

Russia may not be able to land something like the Curiosity rover on Mars (Russia’s many attempts to land a probe on Mars have been failures), but nothing works quite as reliably as Russian rocketry to get things into Earth orbit. As made famous in the movie Gravity, a Russian Soyuz rocket is permanently attached to the International Space Station for emergency escapes back to Earth. And the Soyuz is the only way Americans can get to the space station. For that honor, we pay the Russians about $50 million per astronaut per trip.

Ever since the United States abandoned its majestic Saturn V rocket — the largest, most magnificent machine ever built — that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon, Russian rocket engines have dominated space. When Boeing and Lockheed Martin created the United Launch Alliance (ULA) in 2006, they obtained a monopoly on U.S. military launches. And in the last decade, ULA has been amazingly successful. Their Atlas V rocket built by Boeing has flown more than 50 times in a row without any significant failure. The hidden secret of those successes is that they depended on a powerful first-stage booster using a Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine.

Recently, Boeing, Lockheed, the U.S. Air Force and many others have been scrambling because Congress, in a fit of sudden awareness, passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. It requires American-made rocket engines for military flights starting in 2019. The law was passed after SpaceX and others pointed out that we’re not supposed to be engaged in major trade with Russia because we support sanctions against the country based on its invasion of Crimea. Nonetheless, even the secretary of the Air Force says it’s completely unrealistic to think that the Atlas V rocket can get a new booster engine and get certified (a process that often takes two years) by 2019.

Space will be the next big opportunity no one sees coming. But most of the best players in space either aren’t public — SpaceX and Blue Origin come to mind — or are space dinosaurs, like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The options are few. But there’s one thing we can be certain that future spacecraft are going to need — rocket engines. And because the center of the space race is still in the United States and because Congress doesn’t like Russian rocket engines, a U.S. company that makes rocket engines is likely to succeed in the long run.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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