• COMMENTARY: McCain Fails to Pass Musk Earmark in Russia Sanctions Bill


    Elon Musk’s SpaceX took a huge hit in the Senate this week – a bang comparable in scope to those of his failed rockets crashing down on the Cape Canaveral launch pad.

    The Senate rejected an attempt by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to sneak language into a protectionist Russia sanctions bill that would have benefitted SpaceX by stopping the use of Russian rocket engines in NASA space exploration launches.

    Currently, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) is using Russian rocket engines as they transition to American-made engines.  If the use of Russian rocket engines, and parts, were to be made illegal right now, then SpaceX would be the new provider of all the launches. Although McCain and his allies are claiming that the language is necessary in the bill to punish Russia, Americans would be punished if the space program was slowed. One big problem with a quick transition to SpaceX rockets is the record of failure of SpaceX tests resulting in catastrophic failures recently, including a spectacular explosion of the Falcon 9 in 2015 and another disappointing failure last year.

    The bill language would have accelerated the ban on use of the Russian made RD-180 rocket engine even though Congress has already made clear that they want to transition over a period of years so as not to slow the program. These rocket engines are being phased out while ULA, which does not blow up ISS cargo like SpaceX has done in the past, transitions to a US-built engine.

    McCain is using the rhetoric of a cold warrior to accuse the opponents of his Musk earmark as being in the pocket of the Russian military industrial complex, when he is taking actions that would help one of his pals – Elon Musk.

     The Senate considered and passed a bill that imposes new sanctions on Russia for interference in the 2016 presidential election.  The final vote was 98-2 and passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.  Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) tried to sneak language into the bill to give Elon Musk’s SpaceX a leg up in providing space missions for NASA.

    The bill contained a blanket prohibition on purchasing military hardware from Russia at the behest of McCain. The problem is that Russian rocket engines are being used right now by NASA to transport American astronauts and satellites into space. Any blanket prohibition would have delayed or cancelled currently scheduled space missions.

    Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Richard Shelby (R-AL) offered an amendment to exempt the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from any Russia sanctions “relating to or in connection with any space launch.”  The amendment passed 94-6 with only Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) sided with Elon Musk’s SpaceX amendment.

    Sen. Gardner offered an amendment to the Russia sanctions bill to preserve U.S. access to space.  Sen. Gardner explained that if the McCain language stayed in the bill, multiple space missions would be delayed or even cancelled. Gardner pointed out the irony that if the McCain language stayed in the bill, Russian space craft would have to be used to send American astronauts back to the space station.

    Senator McCain is so blinded by his hatred of Putin that he is willing to put astronauts’ lives in danger with sanctions that make no sense. McCain’s actions were a quiet attempt to sneak language into a bill that was a hidden, crony capitalist gift to his friend Elon Musk. That is wrong and the Senate was right to expunge the language.

    Ultimately, the safety of astronauts and the continuation of the program is more important than helping out crony Elon Musk’s SpaceX and increasing sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin in a way that hurts American space exploration more than it hurts the Russian military-industrial complex.

    Cloakroom Confidential

    Cloakroom Confidential was a longtime Capitol Hill staffer and insider who has contacts in the House and Senate at the highest levels.

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