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Cold War chill returning to space

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By Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

It appears that Russia is using the space program as a political pawn to retaliate against U.S. sanctions over Russia's military actions in Crimea. 

This has the potential to threaten the future of the International Space Station (ISS) and temporarily ground U.S. military satellites.

Over the past months, the U.S. has restricted communication between some American scientists and their Russian colleagues, as part of a mild protest over the Russian involvement in Crimea.  

In response, Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission, has said in his Twitter feed that he is restricting the export to the U.S. of his country's relatively cheap and very reliable RD-180 rocket engines to uses that do not involve the U.S. military. The fact is, those engines are used almost entirely on rockets that carry U.S. military satellites into orbit. 

Mr. Rogozin has also posted an image of a trampoline with a big NASA logo in the centre, saying that after 2020 it is the technology U.S. astronauts will need to use get to the International Space Station.

It's a sad state of affairs that the ISS, a product of post-Cold War co-operation between the U.S. and Russia - and, at $100 billion, arguably the most expensive multi-national peacetime undertaking - is now threatened, as the two nations regress into Cold War tensions.

In the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russian space programs were floundering. The Russian program was running broke because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was operating a space shuttle that was proving to be more expensive than promised. The Americans were also having difficulty finding support for their Freedom space station project, which had a budget that was also ballooning upwards. 

Both countries agreed the only way to keep their space programs alive and build a large space station was to share the costs and technology, which also allowed other countries from Europe, as well as Japan and Canada, to participate. 

In the 13 years since it has been occupied, the International Space Station has literally known no borders. 

Along the way, Russia has done very well financially on this co-operative arrangement by basically turning their space program into a business; sort of a "Space for sale or rent" scenario. The U.S. paid tens of millions of dollars to have American astronauts fly aboard the former space station Mir, and to allow dockings of space shuttles to the Mir complex as rehearsals for the ISS construction.

While visiting Moscow in 1995 for CBC TV (following along with Chris Hadfield, who was preparing for his first flight in space, up to visit Mir), I dropped in at the Krunichev Rocket Factory. It was where large Proton rockets, originally intended to shoot nuclear warheads at the U.S., were being offered up as cheap rides to space. Taped to the sides of the gleaming rockets on the assembly floor were paper banners with names such as Westinghouse, or Raytheon - American satellite manufacturers who were taking advantage of Russia's ability to undercut the costs of launch. 

During that same visit, we attended a press conference where American rocket manufacturers signed a deal to purchase low-cost Russian-built RD-180 engines, which have been powering unmanned boosters such as the Atlas in the U.S. ever since. The majority of those boosters are used by the U.S. military. 

While there is a reserve supply of engines that will keep U.S. boosters flying for another year or so, there is no home-grown alternative rocket engine that the U.S. can build quickly or as cheaply as the RD-180. 

And finally, since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, the U.S. has been paying Russia $60 million per seat for flights on Soyuz rockets up to the Space Station, which are currently the only way U.S. astronauts can fly in space.

If this friendly arrangement breaks down, it will cost both countries dearly. Russia will lose all that income from the sale of its space technology, and the U.S. will have to accelerate the development of its own space capsules and rockets to launch people and satellites into space from American soil.

Standing on the sidelines is Elon Musk, billionaire entrepreneur and owner of SpaceX,  the Texas company that already builds its own low-cost rockets, along with space capsules that have been delivering supplies to the Space Station. He says he could do it all if he's paid enough. In fact, the U.S. military recently paid $60 million to certify the company for military launches.

It could be argued that competition spurs innovation. After all, it was the threat of big rockets that drove the original space race all the way to the moon. Who knows where this round of threats could go?

It's just unfortunate that moving forward as competitors, instead of companions, ends up costing both teams so much more.