Virginia feels effects of NASA-Russia cold shoulder [Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) :: ]
(Daily Press (Newport News, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 11--Last week, NASA cut most of its ties with Russia over the political crisis over Crimea, leaving observers wondering how it might impact space science and exploration -- or even national security.
The ripples are being felt even here in Virginia, headquarters of Orbital Sciences Corp., the private space transportation company that relies on Ukraine for the main core of its big Antares rocket. Orbital launches from Wallops Island spaceport on the Eastern Shore, making crucial resupply missions to the International Space Station.
NASA pointedly exempted the space station from its suspension. The U.S. needs Russia to get American astronauts to the ISS after retiring the Space Shuttle program in 2011.
But if the political situation worsens, it is unclear if Orbital will lose access to its Ukrainian supplier, located in the threatened eastern region of Ukraine.
"Obviously we're monitoring the situation," Orbital spokesman Barron "Barry" Beneski said from his Dulles office. "We're in touch with our suppliers pretty much every day. We haven't seen any disruptions. We're obviously hopeful the situation just kind of calms down and we won't see any upsets."
The big first-stage core of the Antares is built by a company called Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, which once designed Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Orbital uses Russian-derived engines for the rocket's first stage, Beneski said, but those engines are built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, based in California.
Orbital has a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to make eight cargo runs to the space station through 2016. The first launched in January. For the rest, Beneski said the company already has three core stages in the U.S. and two more set for delivery over the next six months or so.
If Orbital needs to get its remaining cores elsewhere, he said, "I'm sure somebody in the company is thinking about that, but we haven't crossed that bridge in terms of saying things in public. We're keeping our eye on the situation, and we'll do what we need to do to protect our interests."
Orbital also has up to two dozen Ukrainian nationals on site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility to help integrate the Antares core with the engines and run tests before launches.
Beneski said there has been no issue with NASA over the Ukrainian specialists.
NASA Wallops referred questions about the impact of the suspension back to Orbital.
Antares' next official launch date is May 6, although NASA recently said it could be postponed to mid-June because of scheduling conflicts.
Orbital finished assembling its Cygnus cargo craft at MARS last Friday for that launch. Beneski said the freighter is already packed with payload for space station astronauts.
According to an official statement from NASA supplied by its Langley Research Center in Hampton, the space agency is taking its activities with its Russian counterparts on a case-by-case basis.
Some programs will continue, it said, including four operational missions with Russian instruments on NASA spacecraft, and participation in the 40th COSPAR conference in Moscow. COSPAR, or the Committee on Space Research, was established in 1958 by the International Council for Science to provide an open forum for space scientists from around the world.
Other programs won't continue for now, including a joint study for a potential joint mission to Venus, a meeting over Siberian boreal forest research and tests of a wide-body commercial aircraft model in a Russian wind tunnel.
"Suspension of these near-term activities," NASA said, "includes all associated NASA travel to Russia, visits by Russian government representatives to NASA facilities, bilateral meetings, email and teleconferences or videoconferences. Our Russian counterparts have been notified."
NASA's online launch schedule for the rest of the year shows that six of 13 missions are aboard a Russian Soyuz from Kazakhstan, and a seventh is the Orbital launch from MARS.
A Soyuz launched on Thursday to deliver cargo and crew supplies to the space station.
The California-based SpaceX is scheduled to launch Monday from Florida to deliver nearly 5,000 pounds of payload to the station as part of its own resupply contract with NASA. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space freighter are virtually all American-made.
By contrast, the Atlas V rocket, considered a workhorse among U.S. boosters, is powered by a Russian-built and supplied RD-180 engine for its first stage.
Also on Thursday, an Atlas V launched a "classified national security payload," or what's widely considered a super-secret spy satellite, into orbit from Cape Canaveral.
The booster has launched more than 40 times since 2002 on missions for NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, delivering missile warning satellites and military communication satellites, as well as communications and science satellites.
It also lofted a Jupiter orbiter, the MAVEN Mars orbiter and the Curiosity Mars science rover.
In 2016, the Atlas V is scheduled to launch a Mars lander, a test flight for the Dream Chaser reusable space plane, a mission to retrieve an asteroid sample, and its first test launch carrying humans.
Last month, when SpaceX founder Elon Musk testified before Congress on national security issues, he was critical of the Atlas V's reliance on Russian-made engines "which can be cut off at any time."
"The logical thing to do," Musk said in news reports, "is to eliminate the Atlas family" and rely instead on the American-built Delta and Falcon families for greater assured access, reliability and cost-savings.
He and others are also critical of the U.S. relying on Russia to get Americans to the space station. Each time an American astronaut rides aboard a Soyuz, the U.S. pays Russia $70 million.
"It's just kind of embarrassing that the United States has to thumb rides from the Russians," Musk said in an interview with Bloomberg Television last month.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program originally aimed to restore human flight capability to the U.S. by next year, but because of a string of Congressional budget cuts that target date is now 2017 at the earliest.
NASA and various industry contractors are developing a massive family of rockets called the Space Launch System as well as the Orion spacecraft designed to carry U.S. astronauts on missions to explore other planets, including Mars in the 2030s.
Meanwhile, four industry partners -- SpaceX, The Boeing Company, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin -- are under CCP contract to develop "space taxis" to get humans to the space station and other destinations in low-Earth orbit.
When NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified before Congress last month, he urged lawmakers to fully fund the CCP to avoid even more delays.
"Let me be clear about one thing," Bolden said. "The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the U.S. or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It's that simple."
Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.
NASA's statement suspending most ties with Russia
Given Russia's ongoing violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser-focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration's for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches -- and the jobs they support -- back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we're now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It's that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America -- and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.
Statement issued by NASA on April 2, 2014.
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