To know the state of the world, look to the rocket engine, that great nest of alloys and polymers, all contorted pipes, inlets, and valves leading to a great bell through which all the fury of hell is blasted into the launch pad. Few artifacts in history have better told the stories, driven the events, and revealed the values of disparate countries dotting the globe than have rocket engines. Though designed in force for weapons of destruction, their eventual employment in what would become the space program would both heighten and prolong the Cold War. Later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s apparent disinterest in rocket engine development would suggest a period of perceived peace and stability, and a political class wholly disinterested in space exploration.
The disruption of rocket engine supply would reveal a world not so stable as might have been thought, and a resurgence in development spurred by New Space would suggest humankind’s future as a multi-planet species. These are big notches even on an austere timeline of human history, and merit a closer look at why rocket engines so effectively act as weathervanes of progress and prosperity.
The Chief Designer
In the shadow of World War II, just as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. settled into their roles as adversaries willing to fight to the death, the Soviet Union faced an early, insurmountable obstacle: the U.S. Air Force. Throughout the 1950s, the United States kept a third of its 1,200-strong B-47 bomber fleet armed with nuclear warheads, fueled, and on alert at all times, ready to strike Russia at a moment’s notice. Those planes could be launched from, among other places, Greenland, Morocco, England, Japan, and would, in total, be able to kill 60 million Soviets at will and destroy nearly every population center in its empire. It was a testament to capitalism and the relative security of the continental U.S. that such an aerial fighting force could be built without bankrupting a nation—to say nothing of the thousands upon thousands of nuclear warheads built that these flying angels of death could deliver.
The Soviet Union, meanwhile, had virtually no retaliatory capability; its air force was incapable of reaching U.S. soil. If there was indeed a Cold War (and those thousands of American nuclear bombs certainly suggested there was), it was one-sided as far as military confrontation went. That was a pretty big problem for the Soviets, compounded by another: a floundering economy. Soviets were beginning to recover from the war and were ready for their lives to improve. They wanted cars. They wanted fashion. They wanted food. The Soviet Union had to pay for this, and already the military consumed up to 20% of its budget. Building an air force to compete with the Americans was a non-starter, if not an outright impossibility.
Sergei Korolev at the Kapustin Yar firing range in 1953. Credit: A. Siddiqi / ESA
Enter the rocket engine, which would for the first time act as the point on which the fate of the world would pivot. Sergei Korolev—known for years to the wider world only as the mysterious “Chief Designer”—presented to Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union, advances he had made in rocket technology. It was called the R-5, whose range could reach just about every country in Europe. Though it couldn’t quite reach England, a future iteration would be able to, and a mere five of these rockets, topped with nuclear warheads, would be able to erase that country from the map. Korolev also had a pet project he’d been working on: something called an artificial satellite, which he received reluctant permission to develop, provided it didn’t interfere with the work on these long range—perhaps one day intercontinental?—ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union was thus saved: why blow fortunes on bomber squadrons as the United States had done when all you needed to do was build a few cheap rockets, relatively speaking, keep them aimed in the right direction, and flip a switch when it came to war?
The whole of the Cold War was marked by increasing rocket sophistication, and the Soviet mastery of the art was exemplified by a series of firsts by Korolev: placing Sputnik in orbit, and later Laika, and then cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. (Americans early on could, at best, produce some pretty spectacular explosions on the launch pad.) A rocket capable of placing an object in orbit was capable of nuking any place in the world—a terrifying prospect for American policymakers.
Laika, the first animal to orbit the Earth. Credit: NASA History Office
Beyond technical proficiency, rocket development would also reveal something about the cultures of the opposing sides. The U.S. was slow in developing satellite lofting rockets of its own in part because of interservice rivalries within its military, and an obsession with safety. The Soviets, meanwhile, had a job to do and little time to waste. In Red Moon Rising, Matthew Brzezinski’s masterful history of the early Space Race, he describes a moment in Russia impossible to imagine in the U.S.:
Once, when a launch had misfired, and the live warhead had been dislodged from its missile, dangling precariously over the pad, everyone had frozen in panic. But [launch testing leader Leonid] Voskresenskiy had calmly told Korolev, ‘Give me a crane, some cash, five men of my choosing, and three hours.’ With wads of vodka-walking-around money bulging out of their pockets, Voskresenskiy’s men safely dismantled the one-ton warhead, after which they got royally drunk.
NASA engineers successfully test the Russian-built RD-180 rocket engine on November 4, 1998 at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Advanced Engine Test Facility. Credit: NASA / Marshall Space Flight Center
The rocket engine—so important to maintaining its superpower status—would prove no less important after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. If Soviet rocket engineers were a threat to U.S. security during the Cold War, they might have been even more so in its aftermath. Russian rocket engine experts would need to find a way to feed their families, and absent a central government able to pay them, there were (and are indeed) a number of nations around the world who would be happy for such a quantum leap forward in rocket abilities.
What else do rockets say about nations? Their relative levels of education spending and quality across generations; their investment science funding; their development of infrastructure. An upstart nation can’t just do all of those things on a whim. It takes decades of perseverance with an eye on an ambiguous prize very far off. Such an endeavor takes national stability, vision, and money to spare.
The fear, then, would be that these Russian rocket masters would join the payroll of countries that would very much like to build long-range nuclear missiles and point them immediately at the United States. The U.S. government’s stance, then, became: Find a way to keep those Russians gainfully employed. Buy their hardware and use it! American aerospace companies dutifully complied with this directive.
To keep the launch cadence high, enter the International Space Station, once a neat idea on paper, and now a vital aspect of national security. While it would never, ever pay for itself in science return, by working with Russian rocket scientists, the United States would suddenly:
1. Keep those scientists from going to Iran with a plan, and,
2. Give the U.S. intelligence community a full account of Russia’s missile launch capabilities and level of rocket expertise.
Forget science: this was perhaps the best intelligence investment the U.S. ever made.
Mothballing the Shuttle Fleet
The quirks of the American economic system would soon be revealed through what next happened in the saga of the rocket engine. Russian rocket engines had three things going for them: they were dirt cheap, rock solid, and in great supply. There was a notion on the outset that aerospace firms might develop their own capability to produce these rockets on U.S. soil, but that soon fell by the wayside with the pinnacle of American capitalism at the turn of the millennium: the concept of outsourcing. It wasn’t just for auto manufacturing and technical support anymore!
This embrace and ultimate reliance on Russian rocket engines for American workhorse launches revealed tellingly that the U.S. government no longer feared total thermonuclear Armageddon, and that the world was stable enough to depend on an uninterrupted supply of said engines. When the Space Shuttle program ended, our reliance on Russian rockets said something else entirely: that we weren’t all that worried about human space exploration, either. When we needed a ride to the ISS, which had by now served its purpose, we’d catch a lift with the Russians. Such an arrangement would have been inconceivable only twenty years earlier, but times had changed indeed.
NASA, meanwhile, harvested the RS-25 rocket engines from the remaining ships in the shuttle fleet and stashed them in warehouses alongside the spares we had in waiting. The warehouses themselves are impressive in size, clean, stacked with spaceship parts, but as a rule not all that different from any manufacturing warehouse in any other industry. In person, it is actually quite moving: a glimpse of a better future in which turning wrenches on rockets is as routine as doing so on the engines that go in Toyotas and Fords—blue collar work, in other words, where you go to trade school and join a workforce that keeps our mining equipment flying to the asteroid belt.
America had a plan to get back in the human launch game after the end of the Shuttle. It was called Constellation: an ambitious, long-term program that would see the development of rocketry and landing technologies, and slowly iterate on those rockets, first lifting things to low-Earth-orbit, and later the Moon, and one day, Mars. Constellation was expensive, yes, and ambitious, but well considered with milestones designed to be achieved even with NASA’s meager budget and anemic political support. The largest rocket the program intended to launch—the Ares V—would be our mighty Mars rocket… but things never got that far. When President Obama came into office, Constellation was killed citing budget overruns and lack of progress, and the furthest Ares rocket development ever moved was the launch of the Ares I-X. After a successful show launch for a rocket that would never be greenlit for production, the program was rolled up and shoved in the backs of filing cabinets.
Congress directed NASA to find a way to develop American heavy-lift capability using the hardware we had on hand. Enter the Space Launch System, which would be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn 5 (the rocket that placed men on the Moon). The SLS team knew that they would have little margin for error as far as funding was concerned, and also knew that they had those sixteen RS-25s in storage—the equivalent of being an auto manufacturer with sixteen Ferrari engines in the garage. They decided to put those engines to use. To achieve the monster lift necessary for its mission of interplanetary exploration, SLS would use four RS-25s per launch. The upshot was that even in the worst budgetary environment, the rocket was politician-proof: they already have the hardware for four guaranteed launches—four opportunities to get human rated and to prove the rocket’s worth as a vehicle for Mars colonization and for slinging spacecraft to the outer planets of the solar system.
Meanwhile, Russia invaded Ukraine, and our reliance on their RD-180 rockets soon proved perilous to the American space program. In retaliation for the invasion, Congress and the White House imposed sanctions on the aggressive Russians. Among the imports banned: the RD-180 rocket engine, which we needed for the bulk of our spacecraft launches. Outsourcing the ability to launch American military satellites was thus revealed to be a terrible mistake, and rocket engines now revealed the new state of American-Russian relations: unfavorable.
Enter SpaceX. Founded by Elon Musk, a dot-com billionaire and industrialist of the Ayn Rand mold, SpaceX would operate with the goal of rocket reusability—a laughable prospect at the time, and nearly impossible to believe even as they repeatedly succeed today.
Conventional launches go something like this: A spacecraft is mounted to a rocket. The rocket launches. At the necessary altitude and speed, the spacecraft separates and goes its own way, and the rocket falls into the ocean, where it forever sleeps with the fishes. SpaceX launches, on the other hand, launch as normal and deploy the spacecraft as usual, but when the rocket falls away, it re-fires, flies to a barge floating on the ocean, reorients itself upright, and lands vertically. The Falcon 9 rockets use SpaceX-designed, American-made Merlin rocket engines. Other rocket companies—dubbed “New Space” by observers—would begin developing their own such reusable systems, including Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon.
The historic first landing of a Falcon 9 rocket following a mission to the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX
Rockets and rocket engines are perhaps now telling us something unambiguous about space exploration: that the financial manacles fixed around NASA, and the failure of politicians to provide leadership in American space exploration, have led to a desperate sort of stagnation at the space agency. The undeniable truth of things is this: New Space companies are taking disposable rockets and rocket engines and making them reusable, and NASA by way of SLS is taking reusable rocket engines and making them disposable. This isn’t a knock at the SLS team, who operate under the sorts of restrictions no engineer wants to wake up to in the morning, and who are doing the best job possible. Rather, the differing ways American government and industry are approaching rocket engines suggest a future in which NASA, which put men on the Moon, takes a back seat to SpaceX, which fully intends to put humans on Mars. The state of rockets tells us that twenty years of government stagnation and indolence have had consequences beyond the political theater of cable news, and that absent leadership, others have filled the void.
When history is written, who knows what rocket engines will next tell us about the state of the world. That Russia invading Ukraine provided an opening for SpaceX to receive the contracts and capital necessary for Americans to invade Mars? That when the sixteenth RS-25 splashes into the Atlantic, the American government got out of the launch business and reinvested those billions in other, needy parts of space science and exploration? Or that some eventual catastrophe by New Space proved the need to NASA’s cautious methods? All that is certain is that whether as weapons of war, or vessels of peace, rockets will be the vehicle in which the future of humankind is delivered, and the messenger from which the story of nations is revealed.