Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cold War 2 ?

This article was published (in edited form) as a guest column in the Waco “Tribune Herald” Sunday 3-16-2014.   Two important things got left out to make it fit the page: (1) a list of all the consequences of a new Cold War,  not just the effects on US access to space,  and (2) why I thought Hillary Clinton was wrong to back-pedal her comparison of Putin to Hitler.  The entire article as originally submitted is posted here.

Cold War 2 ?   
The situation with Russia invading Ukraine just keeps getting worse and worse,  albeit slowly.  I agree with another guest column writer:  this is probably the start of a second cold war between the US and Russia. 

We’ve seen this brute force thing before.  Hillary Clinton was exactly correct to compare Putin’s Russian troops in the Crimea with Hitler’s taking of Czechoslovakia. 

I think she was wrong to backpedal (“clarify”) those comments,  but that is what our politicians seem to do.   Evidently,  there are no real statesmen in the bunch. 

Anybody who thinks Putin will stop at taking the Crimea away from Ukraine is living in a dream world.  He was the leader of the old Soviet secret police (KGB),  for whom the US was always the enemy,  first and foremost.  People really do not change significantly in the way they approach the world.  

Putin is intent on rebuilding the old Russian empire (a.k.a. the Soviet Union),  by reconquering the “republics” that broke away when the Soviet Union broke up.  He wants to do that,  plus he wants to defeat the US in any way possible,  just as he did when he headed the KGB.

This is going to have a variety of consequences that will affect us all.  One may well be a return to the old nuclear missile arms race.  Downside:  one mistake and we all die horribly.  Upside:  there will be a few more jobs for those few of us who are (or were) defense industry engineers.  We’ve seen this before. 

Another is that cooperation with the Russians on anything geopolitical will simply go away.  That means you can forget any Russian help with either Syria or Iran.  No matter how badly folks in those two countries misbehave,  the Russians are not likely to be hurt by it,  while we certainly are. 

Our European allies will prove faithless to one extent or another.  This is because they are critically-dependent upon natural gas from Russia,  and they have been for some years now.  Sanctions will therefore be less effective than hoped,  at best. 

Europe’s reluctance to confront Putin is quite understandable,  but it’s also quite disappointing.  So,  be prepared for the US to go it alone,  or to just give up.  You name the issue.  There are many. 

Now,  don’t get me wrong,  there are good folks in Russia.  But,  Putin ain’t one of ‘em.  It’s time to face that unpleasant fact. 

He’s not that old,  so we’ll be faced with his misbehavior for many years to come.  And there’s always Putin clones waiting in the wings when he’s gone,  a dismal prospect at best.   

One of these effects,  that you might not ordinarily think of,  is how US astronauts get to the International Space Station (ISS).  This is a station that we Americans mostly paid for.  With the space shuttle retired,  our astronauts have been hitching rides in Russian Soyuz launches. 

As this new Cold War escalates,  you should expect that our access to our own space station will get held hostage to Russian geopolitical aims.  I predict that this will come right from the top (Putin).  It surely would be nice if we had a way to launch our own astronauts to our own space station,  wouldn’t it? 

The decision to rely solely upon the Russians is starting to look like the egregiously-bad decision that it always was.  Too bad nobody paid effective attention to this years ago.  Too bad that Congress failed to belly-up to the bar,  and properly fund a suitable follow-on US spacecraft,  commercial or otherwise.

It is possible to fix this one issue reasonably quickly,  but only with major amounts of egg on many bureaucrat’s faces.  There is a funded US commercial space access program,  scheduled to provide manned flights no sooner than 2017.  There are three competing teams vying to provide this capability. 

The drawn-out schedule is in part due to stingy funding from Congress,  and in part from NASA bureaucrats wanting to protect their favored contractors: Boeing,  Lockheed-Martin,  and their monopoly-alliance ULA (United Space Alliance). 

Of the three competitors,  it is my opinion that Spacex could get there first with a manned version of its Dragon capsule,  which in unmanned form is already delivering cargo to the ISS.  They got there about a year ahead of their cargo program competition,  Orbital Sciences.  This was in spite of a similar deliberately-slow cargo program schedule from NASA. 

Dragon was actually planned for manned operation from the start.  Elon Musk,  owner of Spacex,  is no fool.  He wants to be paid by NASA for the work he has already done,  and for the work still left to do.  Once fully paid,  he will fly a manned Dragon capsule so fast it will make your head swim,  I predict.   

The hold-up here is not Spacex or its capsule,  it is NASA’s slow schedule.  The first manned flights of the three competitors’ vehicles cannot be sooner than 2017.  That would be Spacex,  Boeing with its CST-100 capsule (a scaled-back NASA Orion capsule),  and Sierra Nevada Corporation with its Dreamchaser spaceplane. 

This is just my opinion,  but I think Spacex could fly Dragon manned within 6 months to a year,  given full “crash” funding.  I think Boeing might be about a year away from flying on a “crash” basis.  Dreamchaser might be 1 to 2 years away,  given sufficient “crash” funding,  since spaceplanes are just harder to do than capsules,  even today. 

I see here an opportunity to frustrate Putin,  instead of the other way around.  If we were to fly our commercial crew transport sooner rather than later,  we would no longer be hostage to Putin’s whims,  in this one particular area.  This is important,  write your representation about it.