TIME space

Russia, We Have a Problem

Photography by NASA House call The SpaceX Dragon on a visit to the space station in 2013; SpaceX was the first private company to make that trip

Tensions over Crimea shake the U.S.-Russia space partnership. That could be a very good thing for NASA

Going into orbit aboard a Soyuz spacecraft is a humbling experience. There’s no snazzy space-shuttle cockpit with wraparound windshield and heads-up displays here, no proper couches from which a true commander can fly a true rocket ship. The Soyuz is more like a hamster ball with three small seats stuffed in its bottom into which three adults squeeze themselves shoulder to shoulder. The legroom is so limited, they must fly with their knees drawn up toward their chests–rocket jocks in fetal position. The commander–on his back on the floor in his grownup car seat–can’t even reach the instrument panel without the help of a sort of conductor’s baton with a rubber tip.

The U.S. used to hoot at the Soyuz, the same subcompact that’s been in use since 1966, puttering into low Earth orbit, while NASA launched Apollos and lunar modules and space shuttles–Cadillacs by comparison. But now the little Soyuz is the only ride in town, and for the U.S., there’s a whole different kind of humbling in that.

The American space program has arrived at a perilous place. Ever since the last shuttle flew in the summer of 2011, NASA has had no way to get crews to the International Space Station (ISS)–which, despite the International in its name, is overwhelmingly a NASA-built machine–without hitching a ride aboard the Soyuz. The Russians charge more than $70 million per seat for the service, a figure that crept up over the years and then leaped when the last shuttle went into mothballs–proving that if nothing else, the former communist regime had learned a thing or two about dynamic pricing. Russian manufacturers have also done a brisk business with U.S. rocketmakers, selling the Americans their sturdy, affordable RD-180 engine, a dividend of global markets no longer limited by Cold War lockdown.

But all that has changed, thanks to Crimea–a spit of land you’d have to squint to see from high Earth orbit. Once Russia annexed the former Ukrainian territory and the West hit back with sanctions, Moscow decided it might be a good time to play the space card. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry,” tweeted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on April 29, “I suggest the USA bring their astronauts to the ISS using a trampoline.”

Rogozin backed up the snark with action two weeks later, announcing that Russia would quit flying astronauts to the ISS by 2020, at least four years before the expected end of the station’s life. And there would be no more RD-180s sold for any U.S. rocket that was launching a military payload.

NASA’s official position was a shrug. “Russia is every bit as dependent on us to operate the space station as we are on them,” says Greg Williams, one of the chief administrators in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations office, adding that the dustup even provided NASA a small benefit. “We got a new vocabulary word–we didn’t know the Russian word for trampoline.”

There is some bravado in his position, but there’s reason for confidence too. NASA and three private manufacturers are well along in multiple efforts to produce America’s next crewed vehicle, at least one of which should be flying long before 2020. And domestic rocketmakers have enough of a stockpile of RD-180 engines to keep operating until they can design or choose a replacement–though they don’t have a huge margin for error.

That doesn’t mean the Russian bluster doesn’t matter. NASA and Roscosmos, its Russian counterpart, have sunk considerable assets into the ISS, with control rooms in both Moscow and Houston and a robust training regimen for their multinational crews. And the very fact that old mortal enemies were cooperating in the high ground of space–once the very symbol of their rivalry–has been good politics and good optics.

But if the optics have turned ugly, there could be an unintended benefit. NASA’s manned space program has been adrift for more than 40 years now–ever since the Apollo 17 crew returned with the last load of moon rocks. Infrastructure has eroded, talent has fled, innovation has slowed. Beginning in 2005, Washington bet that things could be turned around if NASA gave its low-Earth-orbit portfolio–including carrying cargo and crew to the ISS–to the private sector while it concentrated on dream-big projects like a return to the moon or a trip to Mars or an asteroid.

Now, nine years on, that plan is bearing fruit. Big players like Boeing, along with new kid SpaceX–run by PayPal and Tesla Motors pioneer Elon Musk–are making progress and meeting deadlines and looking as if they might actually be able to truck people and stuff into space in a reliable fashion. NASA, too, with its history of overpromising and underdelivering, is showing flashes of its old genius, at last cutting metal on its new crewed spacecraft and making plans for sending astronauts to deep space for the first time since 1972. Even Congress, its pride stung by Rogozin, is exhibiting a new interest in getting America back in the space game. The Cold War turbocharged the old push into space; Russia may have jolted the U.S. into a new one.

Genius Under Contract

NASA’s push to privatize space has always been misleading, since the agency never really built its own hardware anyway. North American Aviation manufactured the Apollo command module; Grumman built the lunar module; Boeing was prime contractor on the space station. But that was all bespoke work–NASA would tell the contractors what it wanted, and they’d build to the specs. What changed in 2005 was that the companies were told to innovate on their own, design spacecraft of their choosing and then come to pitch their wares. NASA would be buying off the lot instead of commissioning its own sports car–though it did give the manufacturers a hand with $1.8 billion in R&D money over the years.

The strategy produced quick results. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has already made four uncrewed trips to the ISS, and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences has made two with its Cygnus; NASA has signed separate agreements totaling $3.5 billion with both companies to continue the resupply work through 2016. If the U.S. needed bragging rights during the development process, they came in 2011, when one of Russia’s modest Progress-M cargo vehicles–which resupplies the ISS–crashed shortly after launch. Just nine months later, SpaceX’s Dragon achieved its first docking with the station.

Building a next-generation crewed vehicle is a much heavier lift, because when those spacecraft take off, lives will be on the line. So far, NASA has narrowed the competition to three finalists: SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada. They face an elimination phase by early September, when the field will be reduced to two or even one–and all three are taking very different machines into the medal round.

Boeing, comfortably old school, is building the prosaically named CST-100–basically a muscled-up Apollo spacecraft but one able to carry up to seven astronauts compared with the Apollo’s three. There’s virtue in the familiar, in terms of both hardware and builder, and this is hardly Boeing’s first NASA rodeo. “Our engineering is nearly complete,” says John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial crew. “Starting on July 7, we start going component by component and system by system to show NASA we meet the qualifications for flight. This is a really big milestone for us.”

But Boeing has a small problem since the rocket it plans to use to put its craft in space is the Atlas V–exactly the one that uses the now endangered Russian engines. The CST-100 is adaptable to other boosters, and Russia has explicitly said it has no problem with its engines’ being used on nonmilitary missions, but Boeing bosses would clearly be happier if this matter had not come up at all so late in the selection process.

Sierra Nevada, a 50-year-old engineering company that has been involved in space technology for decades, also plans to use the Atlas V and also has alternatives. Its bigger hurdle may involve persuading the space agency to take a chance on a less conventional design. Its Dream Chaser spacecraft, which can also seat seven, is something of an Apollo-shuttle hybrid. A winged vehicle that’s about the size of a regional jet, it takes off atop a rocket facing nose up and lands like a shuttle. Unlike the shuttle, however, it’s not limited to just two specialized landing strips in California and Cape Canaveral. “Dream Chaser can land on any runway capable of handling a 737,” says company vice president Mark Sirangelo. Like a regional jet, too, it’s designed to give passengers a relatively comfortable ride. “We re-enter at 2 G’s,” says Sirangelo. “Capsules come in at two or three times that.”

But America has been down the winged-spacecraft road before, lost two ships and 14 lives in the process and may not want to run the same kind of risk again. Dream Chaser is a much newer and likely much safer beast than the shuttles, but NASA–which is answerable to both a skittish public and Congress–has more than engineering issues to consider.

The SpaceX bid is the flashiest of the three. For one thing, Musk avoids the Atlas V headache since he builds his own boosters. The crewed spacecraft he plans to launch aboard these new rockets is dubbed Dragon v2–for Version 2–and is decorated with a tattoo-like dragon logo on its side. It too is cast from the souped-up Apollo mold, but unlike Apollo, it’s designed to land on four footpads, lowered to the ground by rocket power. That has a very high cool factor but a very high risk factor since it’s an entirely new approach to terrestrial landing. But Musk is bullish.

“You’ll be able to land anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter, which is something I think that a modern spacecraft should be able to do,” he said during a May 29 unveiling of the new ship. For safety’s sake, Dragon v2s will carry a set of traditional parachutes that can be used as backup if the engines fail.

Late to Its Own Party

NASA’s own next-generation crewed system is the most ambitious of all since it’s designed for missions to deep space, but it’s also late to the game. In development in one form or another since 2004, it involves both an Apollo-like ship, dubbed Orion, and a massive new booster that would be the most powerful one since the old Saturn V moon rocket. Indeed, the entire stack of Orion and booster will bear a very close resemblance to that historic hardware, which is no accident. What doesn’t bear any resemblance to the old days is the pace at which the machines are being built.

The new booster is not set to carry humans until 2021–meaning it will have spent 17 years in the development pipeline. Contrast that with the eight years it took the U.S. to go from a standing start in the space program to the surface of the moon, a period that included 21 crewed flights aboard four kinds of vehicles. The difference, of course, is money. “Look at the funding curve back then,” says Williams. “It was always going up. We’ve been doing this work on what amounts to flat budgets.”

And unreliable interest from Washington. The program was nearly scrapped altogether in 2010, and it was only a congressional pushback led by Florida Senator Bill Nelson and former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas–representing the space program’s ground-zero states–that kept it going. But the Russia flap has military implications, and that has gotten Congress’s entire attention. The House Armed Services Committee has moved to press the Pentagon to spend $220 million to develop a new replacement engine, and the Senate has taken similar action. The space community is hoping that that new interest on Capitol Hill lasts beyond the current conflict.

For now, NASA and the private sector are playing nice with Russia. “Our partnership is solid,” says Williams. Indeed, even as he was stressing this point, his boss, William Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration office, was in Russia conducting business as usual.

Of course, down through history, “business as usual” between the U.S. and Russia has been turbulent–periods of expedient friendship punctuated by dangerous breaches. Only a handful of decades ago, that dynamic pushed us to the nuclear brink. But that same competition–and some of that same technology–also carried us into space. It may be doing the same thing again.

This appears in the June 23, 2014 issue of TIME.
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