Back in my days as a rocket scientist I spent most of my time developing ways for the United States and its allies to keep track of the military activities of the Soviet Union. Although I haven’t been in the outer space business since the early 1970s I was still shocked by some recent events resulting from, or revealed by, the goings-on in the Ukraine. It seems that core elements of the American space program are not under American control.
First I learned from newspaper accounts that American military space launches were powered by Russian rocket engines. I can’t imagine the 1960s-vintage US Department of Defense buying Russian components for military space efforts. So, to have the Russians (which seem to act more Soviet-like every day) now supplying equipment vital to our military space program made me more than a little perturbed.
Second, seemingly as a consequence of the Ukraine-related sanctions being levied against Russia by the West, Russia’s deputy prime minister threatened to ban US access to Russian launch vehicles used to get to the International Space Station. We are forced to use Russian launch vehicles because the NASA space shuttle program has ended and the Russians are the only ones with big boosters. This cranked up my perturbation level another couple of notches. The United States, arguably the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world, essentially has handed over control of its heavy-boost space program to its former enemy — presumably in response to the actions of our deficit-obsessed Congress and/or a misguided executive branch.
But there is yet hope. On Thursday, May 29, 2014, SpaceX (one of the firms headed by entrepreneur Elon Musk of electric car fame) unveiled a mockup of its Dragon V2 capsule. The proposed capsule will be launched into orbit by a rocket quite possibly also made by SpaceX. Furthermore the capsule, designed to hold seven people, will be reusable, thereby drastically reducing the cost of space travel in the future. The capsule will be steerable, will have landing legs, and will touch down under its own rocket power. No Russian rocket engines involved. According to the Los Angeles Times: “The company expects to make its first manned test flight by the end of 2016”. Just about the time we will have run through our stock of Russian rocket engines for military space shots.
Much as we have hoped otherwise, the world does not seem to be becoming substantially safer. As Thomas Jefferson once said: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Let’s hope we keep that in mind in future years. Meanwhile, let’s also give congratulations to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and encourage similar endeavors in the pursuit of liberty.