SpaceX's Dragon V2 could replace Russian rockets. Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News
SpaceX's Dragon V2 could replace Russian rockets. Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News

Early Thursday morning Moscow time, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including one American, docked with the International Space Station. Four months ago this would have been a routine mission of the sort envisioned in the 1990s when the United States and Russia became leading partners on the $100 billion football-field-sized space laboratory. But thanks to Crimea, U.S. sanctions against Russia, and subsequent Russian threats to scuttle the longstanding partnership between the two oldest spacefaring nations, the successful docking had a valedictory feel to it.

That’s a pity. U.S.-Russian space cooperation dates back to the 1960s. In Beyond the Moon: A Golden Age of Planetary Exploration, the late Robert Kreamer, NASA’s Director of Planetary of Exploration during the 1970s, describes how Soviet and American scientists quietly supported each other’s research and missions even during the height of the Cold War. More formal collaboration followed -- to the benefit of both countries.

Soviet rocketry expertise, in particular, has played an important role in the International Space Station. Ever since the U.S. retired the Space Shuttles in 2011, it's had to rely on the Russians to ferry U.S. astronauts to the facility. The most recent launch was completed under a deal that pays the Russians $457.9 million -- sanctions or no sanctions.

Enter SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who -- with impeccable timing -- unveiled his company’s Dragon V2 spacecraft on Thursday evening, California time. Musk has made no secret of the fact that the Dragon V2 and SpaceX’s other products are intended to compete with and ultimately supplant Russia’s rockets. That’s a worthy goal, and NASA has supported the effort via its Commercial Crew Program, an effort to help the US aerospace industry develop private “space transportation systems that can safely launch humans to low Earth orbit."

The first Dragon V2 launch could come as early as 2017, marking the end of at least one important U.S.-Russian collaboration. But the more important date is 2020, when the Russian commitment to the ISS ends (in January the U.S. committed to flying the ISS through 2024). Three weeks ago, the head of the Russian space program announced -- in a fit of post-sanctions pique -- that the Russians "plan to use the ISS exactly up to 2020.” What happens to the space station and its Russian components after that is uncertain.

Ironically, the Russian commitment to space looks set to expand, not contract, in the wake of any withdrawal. On the same day that the Russians cast doubt on the ISS, Moscow boosted the budget of its space program by $52 billion over six years. Russia may be looking for new partners for this bulked-up program: Two weeks ago in Beijing the respective heads of the Russian and Chinese space programs signed a protocol to establish “strategic projects” in space, including “projects that can replace the ISS.” Earlier this week, Joe Pappalardo, writing for Popular Mechanics, imagined “the next generation space station being closed to U.S. -- leaving our astronauts floating outside the airlock, peering through the window at the Europeans, Indians, and Chinese inside.”

Will Chinese-Russian collaborations eventually eclipse a U.S. space program that struggles annually to fund its projects? The U.S. shouldn’t assume that its technological lead will last forever just because it’s building out a private space launch industry. SpaceX and other private operators will happily launch -- but not develop and operate -- scientific missions that have no clear profit outcome. Those kinds of mission require national space agencies, and in an age of shrinking budgets, international partners. Russia is a troubling candidate for partnership, but the U.S. has been collaborating with the country and occasionally sanctioning it for decades. There’s no reason to stop now.

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at shanghaiscrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net