Baby boomers witness enduring US-Russia space rivalry

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We baby boomers grew up during the space race of the 1960s and 70s but the cold war then never seemed as serious to the American program in space until now. BoomerCafe Co-Founder and Executive Editor Greg Dobbs – who reported on space for years as a television correspondent – shares this perspective on what’s at stake.

Now it’s getting serious! Because of Ukraine, the last visible vestige of cooperation between the United States and Russia, which has endured through thick and thin, is in play: space.

Until now, we’ve really held the Ukraine upheaval at arm’s length, partly because everything Russia’s President Putin wanted (and grabbed) there is more important to him than it is to us. Sure, he’s a bully and we’ve protested and rightly so, and we’re turning up whatever heat we can. But our own nation’s well-being? No different than when the Crimea crisis crystalized two months ago.

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Until this week. That’s when, after we tightened sanctions against Russia and its high-tech industries, a deputy prime minister in Moscow indignantly declared in response, “If they want to make an economic blow to the Russian rocket building industry, then they should consider using a trampoline to deliver their astronauts to the International Space Station.” That might sound funny if it weren’t so serious. Because in the case of space, we need them more than they need us.

Greg Dobbs while hosting television coverage of a NASA Shuttle launch.

Greg Dobbs while hosting television coverage of a NASA Shuttle launch.

At $60-Million per seat, Russia loves what we pay to put our people in their Soyuz capsules for a ride to the space station — it is an important piece of their space program’s budget — but without it, they’ll survive. However, as American astronaut Al Drew told me during an interview a few years ago at the Yuri Gagarin Spaceflight Center outside Moscow while he was part of a joint training exercise, “If things go sour between the U.S. and Russia, I can guess our (manned) space program can be one of the first casualties.” In other words, it will die. Which raises the uncomfortable question, what about our astronauts who are up in space right now?

The only answer we have, as another astronaut, Michael Barratt, told me, is, “We’re at the whim of our countries.” What that means is, our astronauts and their counterpart cosmonauts have always gotten along. They don’t just work and eat and laugh and live with one another; they depend on each other, because they face life and death together. But the crisis in Ukraine might be bigger than those personal bonds in space.

In a rational world, where this extraterrestrial teamwork is a win for both countries, space would never be introduced as a weapon in the clash between us. But sometimes, geopolitics aren’t rational. We signed on to fly with the Russians because once the Shuttle shut down, they were the only game in town. We hoped we could count on them because we had to. Michael Griffin, NASA’s boss at the time, told me in Washington, “Embarking upon a planned period of dependence upon Russia… obviously is at some risk.” He called the arrangement “unseemly.” And yet, he assured me that there had never been so much as a hiccup between Russia’s space agency Roskosmos, and NASA.

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Then, I interviewed Russia’s director of manned space flight, and he told me the same, adding: “I believe in the future that the politics will not interfere.” But perhaps prophetically, he went on, “However, space will be very close to politics any time.” When I asked him what he meant by that, he said, “It’s very subject to politics. Because space will be a policy instrument.”

Sitting there in the Moscow headquarters of the Russian space agency, then spending a couple of days watching Americans training with Russians at the Gagarin Center, it was a little hard to believe that not so long before, we had faced off in the Cold War. But it’s not hard any more. What people at NASA always said under their breath about the Russian partnership was, “Their spacecraft is reliable, but are they?” Now we have our answer: if they choose to hold us hostage, it is no.

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