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Military / National Security News

Bipartisan House Intelligence Committee Report Concludes NRO Buys Excess Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jul-2014 (Updated: 31-Jul-2014 05:31 PM)

As the House readies to adjourn for the August recess, the House Intelligence Committee today released a bipartisan report on how to save money in the procurement of intelligence satellites.  The report is the result of a one-and-a-half year committee review of the Intelligence Community's (IC's) satellite acquisition processes and was delivered to National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) today (July 31).

NRO designs, builds, launches and maintains the nation's intelligence satellites and is headed by Director Betty Sapp.  It is one of 17 members of the IC, which is coordinated by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper.

In a press release, committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and ranking member Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD) said the report "pinpoints specific areas where the IC can improve its purchase of these important systems."

The report is classified, but the committee released a 9-page unclassified summary.  The bottom line of the report is that NRO buys satellites "faster than necessary to meet mission requirements in order to stabilize the industrial base," but has not "sufficiently scrutinized" its assumptions on what is needed to achieve industrial base stability.  Its assumptions are based on information from the prime contractor and "NRO lacks sufficient visibility" to verify that information. 

"NRO assumes it must buy satellites at a relatively fast pace because a slower pace would lead to an increased cost per satellite. .... Unless the higher cost of slower production exceeds the cost of an excess satellite, the assumption that slower paces are too costly is flawed," the report concludes. 

In the committee's view, the burden is on the Office of the DNI (ODNI) and the NRO to ensure assumptions are correct and they are not paying more than necessary.  Among its five recommendations, the report calls for the ODNI to verify NRO's assumptions externally, not using contractor-supplied information.  Specifically, it says ODNI should create a plan for using data from the Department of Commerce's ongoing "Space Industrial Base Deep Dive" study to verify assumptions and start exploring alternative studies in case those data are inadequate.

U.S. Readies More Sanctions, Accuses Russia of INF Treaty Violation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2014 (Updated: 29-Jul-2014 12:16 AM)

The United States and its major European allies announced on Monday they are finalizing more sanctions against Russia in the wake of the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine on July 17.  The United States also reportedly formally accused Russia of violating a treaty prohibiting development of new medium range cruise missiles.  The extent to which these developments might impact U.S.–Russian space relationships is unclear.

Sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over the past several months following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula have largely skirted civil space cooperation.  The United States relies on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and Russian rocket engines are used to power two U.S. launch vehicles – Atlas 5 with its Russian RD-180 engines, and Antares and its Russian AJ-26 (NK-33) engines.

Although NASA, along with other government agencies, was directed to limit cooperation with Russia, the ISS was specifically exempted and other NASA programs were given waivers.  Three Russian cosmonauts, two American astronauts and one German astronaut are currently living together aboard the ISS, which is jointly operated by the United States and Russia.

The shoot-down of the commercial Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) airliner as it transited Ukrainian airspace at 33,000 feet on July 17, 2014, and Russia’s refusal to accept responsibility despite Western insistence that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine used a Russian BUK surface-to-air missile system in that horrific tragedy, pushed the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy to announce today (July 28) they will impose new sanctions imminently.  Specifics were not released.  The New York Times said Europe will finalize its sanctions package tomorrow (Tuesday), with the United States following suit thereafter.

The White House released a read-out of a telecom among the leaders of the five countries discussing several global hot spots including Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq and Libya.  On this topic, it said only that all agreed on the need for “coordinated sanctions measures on Russia for its continued transfer of arms, equipment, and fighters into eastern Ukraine, including since the crash, and to press Russia to end its efforts to destabilize the country…”

At the same time, also according to the New York Times, President Obama formally notified Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States has concluded Russia violated the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers.  Multiple sources reported the news this evening, with most citing the New York Times as breaking the story.  President Obama’s letter to Putin is not yet posted on the White House Web site.

Check back here as more details of these actions are made public.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 28-August 1, 2014 - UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2014 (Updated: 27-Jul-2014 05:31 PM)

Here is our list of upcoming events for the week of July 28-August 1, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate do not currently have any space policy-related hearings or actions on their public agendas during this last week of legislative work before their August recess.  The "August" recess actually extends until September 8, so it's a full five weeks.   Despite early rumors last week that they would take up a FY2015 Continuing Resolution (CR) before the break, House Speaker John Boehner made it absolutely clear on Thursday that he would not bring a CR to the House floor until they return in September.  He said the CR would last until early December.  

The memories of last year's 16-day government shutdown have not faded and a lot of people are hoping the same scenario does not play out again.  Many politicians are saying they don't want a shutdown, but whether they will feel the same way after five weeks with their constituents is the big question.  Analysts of last year's shutdown argue that one factor that fueled it was constituent angst -- primarily over Obamacare -- directed at their representatives during the August break. (A lot of people blame Congress for not working hard enough and point to the number of days they are in session in Washington.   It is important to remember that most of the time they are not in Washington, they are still working, just back in their districts.  The August "recess" doesn't mean they are on vacation for five weeks.  Indeed, in this election year, they will be interacting with the people whose votes they need and listening carefully to their concerns.)

In any case, for space policy aficionados, most of the action will be in Cleveland, OH with the AIAA's Propulsion and Energy 2014 Conference, or Hampton, VA at NASA's Langely Research Center where the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and its committees are meeting.  All of the NAC meetings are available via WebEx and telecom.  Instructions are provided in the individual entries on our calendar. 

In Washington, NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday (available via WebEx/telecom).  Also on Thursday, American University (AU) and Explore Mars Inc. are holding an interesting panel discussion at AU on "Is It Time To Search for Life on Mars?"  Thought we were already searching for life on Mars?   Go to the panel and find out why they titled their event as they did.  They've got a great lineup of speakers -- and a reception afterwards.  It appears as though it will be webcast (there's a Ustream link on the event's website).

Here's the list of events we know about as of Sunday afternoon.

Monday-Tuesday, July 28-29, 2014

Monday-Wednesday, July 28-30, 2014

Tuesday, July 29

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 29-30   

Tuesday-Thursday, July 29-31

Wednesday-Thursday, July 30-31

Thursday, July 31

 

Correction:  An earlier version of this article had incorrect dates for the meeting of the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee.  The correct dates are July 28-29 (not July 29-30).

 

U.S. Accuses China of Conducting Another ASAT Test

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-Jul-2014 (Updated: 25-Jul-2014 06:50 PM)

The State Department today accused China of conducting another antisatellite (ASAT) test on Wednesday.   China said that it had conducted a missile intercept test.   The distinction between the two operations can be difficult to draw and there continues to be dispute in western circles as to how many ASAT tests China has already conducted.

Everyone agrees that in 2007 China destroyed one of its own satellites with an ASAT weapon.  The test was condemned internationally because of the vast debris cloud it created in low Earth orbit -- about 3,000 pieces (the exact number changes as some pieces reenter and new pieces are created by collisions within the debris cloud) -- that threatens all satellites operating in that realm.

There also is agreement that China conducted tests in 2010 and 2013, but whether they were missile intercept or ASAT tests is a matter of debate in western circles.  While some western analysts consider them ASAT tests, the U.S. government has not officially characterized them that way.

Therefore, this is only the second time the United States government has directly accused China of conducting an ASAT test and it called on China to "refrain from destabilizing actions ... that threaten the long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend."

The full statement from the State Department issued today (July 25, 2014 EDT) reads as follows:

"The United States has concluded that on July 23, the People’s Republic of China conducted a non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites.  A previous destructive test of this system in 2007 created thousands of pieces of debris, which continue to present an on-going danger to the space systems of all nations, including China.  We call on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend.  The United States continuously looks to ensure its space systems are safe and resilient against emerging space threats."

In answer to an emailed query from SpacePolicyOnline.com, Grant Schneider of the State Department's Bureau of Arms Control and Verification and Compliance, replied "We have high confidence in our assessment.  We refer to you to Chinese authorities for further information on this anti-satellite test."

China's Xinhua news agency on Thursday said only that it had conducted a successful land-based missile intercept test on July 23 that "achieved its preset goal."

In an emailed exchange this afternoon, Brian Weeden, technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, noted that China's announcement called it a successful missile intercept test while the State Department referred to it as a "non-destructive test."  Weeden observed that China did not mention a designated target for Wednesday's test, unlike the 2010 and 2013 tests where it said the target was launched on a ballistic missile.  "There was no mention of that this time," he said, and "My guess is that this test didn't have a designated target."

The United States and the Soviet Union developed ASAT systems early in the Space Age.  The fate of the Soviet system is unclear, but it has not been tested since 1982. The United States ended its dedicated ASAT programs by the 1990s. In 2008, however, the United States destroyed one of its own spy satellites (USA-193) using a missile launched from an Aegis cruiser because, it asserted, the satellite was out of control and carried hazardous fuel that posed significant risk to populated areas if it made an uncontrolled reentry.  The operation demonstrated an inherent U.S. capability to conduct such operations even though there is no official ASAT program.

RD-180 Decision Will Not Be Made By Space Community Says Member of Mitchell Panel

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 24-Jul-2014 (Updated: 24-Jul-2014 02:14 PM)

Just as the decision to rely on the RD-180 engine was driven by “geopolitical interests,” rather than “space community necessity,” the answer of whether to continue to use the Russian engine or build a U.S. alternative will not be “in the space community’s hands,” says a member of Air Force’s RD-180 Alternative Study. 

At an event yesterday hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute, Josh Hartman, CEO of Horizon Strategies Group and a member of the independent advisory panel that examined alternatives to the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, summarized the findings and recommendations of the Air Force-convened panel. Chaired by Major General Howard J. ‘Mitch’ Mitchell, USAF (ret.), the expert panel was asked to submit its report in just 30 days – rather than the original 60 days – because of congressional interest in the study, Hartman explained. While the final report is classified, SpacePolicyOnline.com posted a set of unclassified briefing charts and summarized highlights from them in May.

The panel concluded that the loss of the Russian RD-180s, on which the United States depends to power the Atlas V rocket, one of two Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) that are the workhorses of national security space launches, would be “significant.” Although the United States has enough RD-180s for two years’ worth of launches, the current launch manifest would need to be prioritized, costing billions of dollars in delays and in retrofitting existing payloads to launch on other rockets.

In a scenario where the RD-180s disappeared, the United States would lose its ability to use the Atlas V. While the second EELV –Delta IV – is technically capable of launching the satellites now manifested on Atlas V, some question whether the production rate could be accelerated sufficiently to compensate.  Therefore, the national security sector would need to rely on new entrants, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, both of which have expressed an interest in providing national security space launches.

However, doing so would mean incurring a “great level of risk,” said Hartman.  On the one hand it is a question of how soon new entrants would be ready to launch rockets equivalent in capability to Atlas V. The Mitchell panel found that even if new entrants were certified and ready to compete for national security launches in 2015, the first launch would not be before 2017. On the other hand, Hartman said these companies are not advertising that they would meet the full spectrum of national security launches. He added that SpaceX and Blue Origin are “not motivated by national security launches” but see these as a “stepping stone” to other activities.

The second speaker, Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University, expanded on the policy questions, opportunities and risks of what he said was a “looming crisis.” He argued that the reasons to reconsider U.S. launch options go beyond the current geopolitical situation and include longer-term issues. These include the increasing cost of the EELV program, which includes “imposed costs” that come with the U.S. government’s “way of doing business,” and the interest created by new entrants.  In his remarks, Pace highlighted the need to reexamine the benefit of imposing extensive rules and restrictions on industry partners – some that have no value-added – and can sometimes hamper innovation.

To a question about the potential role of foreign partners in this effort, Hartman said that new partnerships would be considered on a “case-by-case basis.” He noted that while the Russian engine was the main issue of interest, there is ongoing foreign participation in other components of the EELV program.

Pace said that he sees more opportunities for foreign partners in civil space exploration, including launch infrastructure.   For national security launches he thinks it will be commercial rather than international partners.

GAO Warns NASA $400 Million Short to Finish SLS by 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jul-2014 (Updated: 23-Jul-2014 07:27 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) praised NASA's technical progress in building the Space Launch System (SLS) in a report released today, but warned that the agency does not have enough funding to complete the rocket in time for its promised first flight in 2017.

GAO pointed out that most NASA programs are required to have a funding and schedule profile that affords at least a 70 percent chance of success -- a "joint confidence level" or JCL -- and SLS does not have that.  The program may be $400 million short of what it needs in order to be ready for the first test launch in 2017 at a 70 percent confidence level, GAO concluded using analysis by the SLS program itself.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden conceded in a Senate hearing earlier this year that NASA is not using the 70 percent confidence level for SLS.  In a colloquy with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), SLS's strongest supporter in the Senate (it is being built in Alabama), Bolden said: "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic."  He told Shelby he had enough money to be ready to launch in 2017, but also hedged by saying "in fiscal year 2018."  Only the first three months of FY2018 are in calendar year 2017 (October-December).   Bolden said that he is comfortable with not meeting a 70 percent JCL because SLS relies on mature technology.

SLS is being developed pursuant to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, a bipartisan agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on the one hand, and the Obama Administration on the other.  SLS and its Orion spacecraft are intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).  The 2017 version of SLS will be able to place 70 metric tons into LEO.  Two enhanced versions are planned for the future capable of 105 tons and 130 tons.  In some respects SLS/Orion replaces the Bush-era Constellation program; in others it is much the same -- developing a big rocket and a spacecraft to take people to Mars someday.

NASA plans to spend $12 billion on SLS and associated ground systems through the 2017 launch, GAO said, and "potentially billions more" for the future variants.

The first test flight is supposed to take place in 2017.  The next flight would not be until 2021.  That would be the first to carry a crew aboard an Orion spacecraft. Noting that NASA has not developed plans for SLS beyond that flight, GAO concluded that presents opportunities "to improve long term affordability through competition" to build other elements of the system, such as an improved upper stage.

In today's report, GAO recommends that NASA "develop an executable business case for SLS that matches resources to requirements, and provide to the Congress an assessment of the SLS elements that could be competitively procured for future SLS variants before finalizing acquisition plans for those variants."   It adds that "NASA concurred" with the recommendations.

Rumors Start about a Continuing Resolution as Congressional Clock Ticks Down

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jul-2014 (Updated: 22-Jul-2014 09:59 PM)

Rumors are circulating that Congress may try to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded after September 30 before they leave for their August recess. Nothing has been decided yet, however. 

The House is moving through the 12 regular FY2015 appropriations bills at a fairly fast clip, but none of them has passed the Senate.  Hopes that three of the bills could be bundled together as a "minibus" and passed by the Senate died last month over a disagreement about the rules for considering amendments during floor debate.  The three bills include two that fund space activities: Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), of which NASA and NOAA are part, and Transportation-HUD bill, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  The third bill is the Agriculture appropriations.

Congress will be in session this week and next.  Then it will recess for the month of August.  When they return, the House is scheduled to be in session for only 10 days in September and the first two days of October before recessing to campaign for the November elections.   The Senate website does not show how many days it plans to be in session once it returns. 

FY2014 ends on September 30.  If funding bills -- individually or as a CR -- are not passed by then, the government would have to shut down the unfunded activities.  Last year, most of the government was shut down for 16 days.  Ninety-eight percent of NASA workers were furloughed.

The shutdown, led by Tea Party Republicans, was over Obamacare and government-wide funding levels.  At the time, many Washington pundits argued that the Tea Party lost a lot of support because of the shutdown, but a year later that is not so clear.  The Hill reports today that passing a CR before the August recess "could be a way to squelch any talk of a shutdown before it begins."

 

What's Happening in Space Policy July 20-25, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jul-2014 (Updated: 21-Jul-2014 11:41 AM)

This week's list of upcoming space policy events starts with tonight -- Sunday, July 20, the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.  At 10:39 pm EDT, NASA TV will replay footage of the historic moment of hatch opening and other events.  More commemorative Apollo 11 45th anniversary events are planned throughout the week, as listed below.

During the Week

Apollo 11 45th anniversary:   Commemorative events continue tomorrow (Monday) when the Operations and Checkout  building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) will be renamed in honor of Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong, who passed away in 2012.  His Apollo 11 crewmates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, will participate in the ceremony, along with Armstrong's backup for the mission, Jim Lovell.   The event begins at 10:15 am EDT.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana -- both former astronauts -- also will be there, along with a live video hookup with the two NASA astronauts who are aboard the International Space Station (ISS) right now, Steve Swanson and Reid Wiseman.  

On Thursday, July 24, the anniversary of Apollo 11's return from the Moon, the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee will have a live video hookup with Swanson and Wiseman at 11:00 am EDT followed by an event that showcases ISS research and features a panel discussion with three leaders in the ISS research field (12:00-2:00 pm EDT).  Then, at 3:00 pm PACIFIC time (6:00 pm Eastern), NASA will hold a panel discussion at Comic-Con International in San Diego.  That features Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, Jim Green, the head of NASA's planetary science division, JPL's Bobak Ferdowsi, best known as the "Mohawk guy" from the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and astronaut Mike Fincke.  A media availability with the panel members follows the discussion.

Other Events:   On Wednesday, the Marshall Institute will hold a panel discussion on the national security launch industrial base.  Josh Hartman, who was one of the members of the "Mitchell panel" that recently reviewed options for dealing with the possibility that the supply of Russia's RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket could be disrupted, will talk about "issues and opportunities," along with Scott Pace of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.  That's from 9:00-10:30 am EDT at the Army Navy Club in Washington, DC. 

NASA's Ames Research Center in California is the venue for the "Exploration Science Forum" from July 21-23, and NewSpace 2014, the annual conference of the Space Frontier Foundation, begins on July 24 in San Jose, CA.

Lots of other events are on tap, as listed below based on what we know as of Sunday afternoon, July 20.

Sunday, July 20

Monday, July 21

Monday-Wednesday, July 21-23

Tuesday, July 22

Wednesday, July 23

Wednesday-Thursday, July 23-24

Thursday, July 24

Thursday-Saturday, July 24-26

NRC Finds Too Much Hype About In-Space 3-D Printing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jul-2014 (Updated: 18-Jul-2014 03:54 PM)

The National Research Council (NRC) released a report today that makes no bones about its skepticism regarding the utility of 3-D printing in space at the present time, saying claims in the popular press are “exaggerated” and it is no “magic solution.”

Formally called “additive manufacturing,” this technology allows three-dimensional (3-D) parts to be built directly from computer files.  It has been in use terrestrially since the 1980s and is becoming more wide-spread. Using it in space presents unique challenges, however.  The vacuum, lack of gravity and intense thermal fluctuations are obstacles that must be overcome; they are important not only in completing the manufacturing process, but in the integrity of the final product, according to the NRC.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert D. Latiff  (Ret.), who chaired the NRC committee, and his colleagues found that while 3-D printing “is a fairly mature technology for components that can be manufactured on the ground, its application in space is not feasible today, except for very limited and experimental purposes.”

“Many of the claims made in the popular press about this technology have been exaggerated,” Latiff said in a press release.  Even in the longer term, it will be “one more tool in the toolbox” and “not a magic solution.”

That is not to say that the committee rejected the idea of in-space 3-D printing entirely.  Indeed, the report begins by saying it has “the potential to positively affect human spaceflight operations by enabling the in-orbit manufacturing of replacement parts and tools,” thereby reducing logistics requirements for the International Space Station (ISS) and human trips beyond low Earth orbit.  However, the “specific benefits and potential scope … remain undetermined, and there has been a substantial degree of exaggeration, even hype, about its capabilities in the short term.”

As for the longer term, “[w]hat can be accomplished in the far future depends on many factors, including decisions made today by NASA and the Air Force.” The study was sponsored by those two entities and offering them advice is the focus of the NRC report.

Many of the recommendations involve the two working together in this field.  Indeed, the report’s first recommendation is that NASA and the Air Force jointly “research, identify, develop and gain consensus on standard qualification and certification methodologies for different applications,” and bring in other government agencies and industry as well.  The committee also recommends a joint cost-benefit analysis of 3-D printing for building smaller, more reliable satellite systems or their key components.

Among the committee’s recommendations for NASA alone is that the agency sponsor a workshop to bring together experts in the field and improve communications internally and externally since input from multiple disciplines is required.  It should also create an agency-wide technology roadmap and quickly identify experiments that it can develop and test aboard the ISS while that facility is still available.  Under current plans, ISS will operate until 2024, just 10 more years.

The Air Force should also develop a roadmap, conduct a systems-analytic study of the operational utility of spacecraft and their components produced with 3-D printing, and “make every effort” to cooperate with NASA on technology development.  That includes conducting its own research on the ISS, jointly sharing the costs and the results with NASA.

Both agencies should consider increased investments in education and training of materials scientists with this expertise and spacecraft designers and engineers with deep knowledge of the use and development of 3-D printing, the committee recommended.

Latiff is a materials scientist himself and spent part of his military career at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).  Later he was vice president, chief engineer, and technology officer for SAIC’s space and geospatial intelligence unit.  He is a former chair of the NRC’s National Materials and Manufacturing Board (of which he is still a member) and of the NRC’s Air Force Studies Board.  A full roster of committee members is provided in the report, which can be downloaded for free from the website of the National Academies Press.

New Obama Sanctions Seem to Skirt Space Activities, But Future is Unknowable

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jul-2014 (Updated: 17-Jul-2014 10:13 PM)

It is impossible to know how the Malaysian airliner crash in Ukraine today (July 17) will affect U.S.-Russian relationships, but yesterday the Obama Administration imposed new sanctions on certain Russian economic sectors because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine up to that point.  One Russian company that was sanctioned, NPO Mashinstroyennia, has a renowned history in Soviet space activities, but apparently is not involved in many space activities currently.

U.S.-Russian relationships have been on edge since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula earlier this year.  The Obama Administration has invoked a number of sanctions against Russian individuals and entities.   Some NASA activities have been impacted, but the most high profile – such as the International Space Station (ISS) – were exempted.  The deteriorating relationship has focused attention on U.S. dependence on Russia for taking astronauts to and from the ISS, for the RD-180 engines for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket, and the for NK-33/AJ-26 engines for Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket, however.

Yesterday, the Obama Administration issued new sanctions.  Among the Russian entities on the list is NPO MASHINOSTROYENIA – “NPO Mash” – an important player in Soviet space activities.  Founded by Vladimir Chelomi, it developed the Almaz series of military space stations launched in the 1970s ( Salyut 2, 3 and 5 --  though Salyut 2 was a failure).  It was not able to compete effectively with its rival, Energia, in space activities, but survives because of other lines of business.

Currently its primary business is cruise missiles according to Anatoly Zak, an expert on Soviet and Russian space activities and editor of RussianSpaceWeb.com.  In an email, Zak said that NPO Mash is not involved in any of the three major cooperative space activities with the United States – the RD-180 or NK-33/AJ-26 rocket engines or the ISS.

Until now it appears that all of the U.S.-imposed sanctions based on the Ukraine situation have barely impacted U.S.-Russian space relationships. Three Russians, two Americans and one German are currently aboard the ISS.

What will happen in the wake of events today – where Ukrainian and some U.S. sources assert that a Russian surface-to-air missile operated by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down Malaysia’s commercial airline flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – is unknowable.

Many commentators today are theorizing that there was no intention to destroy a commercial airliner and cite two previous incidents where military errors led to the loss of innocent lives on commercial airlines.  In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down Korean Air Lines (KAL) 007, from New York to Seoul, because it said the airplane encroached on restricted airspace.   In 1988, a U.S. Aegis cruiser destroyed Iran Air 655, a commercial flight from Tehran to Dubai, mistaking it for an attacking military jet.  The death toll for KAL007 was 269; from Iran Air 655 was 290; and from today’s MH17 was 295.