The crisis unfolding in Ukraine has been anything but fun for Western powers. While sanctions have been expanded by both the United States and European Union, questions remain about their effectiveness. Russia faces severe near-term economic consequences as global powers divest and divert capital from the nation -- Bloomberg estimates the country has a 50% chance of slipping into recession in the next year -- but the world may be able to effectively target long-term growth as punishment for its aggressive behavior, too.
How so? By joining forces to abandon Russia where it could hurt the most: in space. Canada recently pulled the plug on its plan to launch a satellite on a Russian Soyuz rocket in June, while NASA canceled most collaboration with Russia's Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, outside of those with the International Space Station, or ISS. However, the European Space Agency as well as those belonging to France, Germany, and Japan are still in constant communication with Roscosmos. That won't work. The world needs more than just symbolic gestures.
Space technologies represent an important growth opportunity for developing and post-industrial economies alike, and Russia has no intention of falling behind its Western peers. The continued leadership position demonstrated by the United States and its game-changing push to encourage private investment in space technologies ranging from transportation of people, supplies, and satellites to private space stations and asteroid mining operations gives the West and its allies the clear upper hand. How could companies such as SpaceX, Boeing (NYSE: BA ) , and Orbital Sciences (NYSE: OA ) make the bold plan work?
Russia's space ambitions
In April 2013, President Vladimir Putin announced an ambitious space program that called for landing a person on Mars, building a moon base, developing strategic capabilities allowing the nation to shoot down external threats, sending spacecraft to Venus and Jupiter, replacing the Soyuz rocket with a more powerful and modern Angara rocket, and moving rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in nearby Kazakhstan to the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East. The goals are essential to bolstering Russia's competitiveness and modernizing its capabilities in space, especially given multiple launch failures since 2010 and the failed Mars probe Phobos-Grunt.
Will it happen? Some have called the plan overly ambitious, and it might be, but why not take the country seriously? Moscow intends to spend over $50 billion by the end of the decade in addition to current space spending to accomplish its goals. That's an extra $7.1 billion per year, or the equivalent of increasing the annual budget for NASA by 41% (based on the 2015 budget). Factor in Russian collaborations with China and India and the monetary goals become quite attainable, even if the timelines get pushed back slightly.
Why abandonment could work
In the next few years, the United States will be completely independent when it comes to space, thanks to a burgeoning private industry. SpaceX has had tremendous success with its Dragon vehicle and reusable Falcon rocket family, which have had their development catalyzed by contracts with NASA, the military, private corporations, and international governments. In fact, as you read this, a Dragon capsule is attached to the ISS orbiting overhead. It will be filled with spent cargo from the current crew and returned to Earth on May 18.
SpaceX isn't the only company vying for supply contracts, either. Orbital Sciences is slated to launch a cargo-loaded Cygnus spacecraft aboard its Antares launch vehicle on June 10. It will return spent cargo after an approximately 40-day stay on the ISS. Meanwhile, Boeing is preparing to launch its CST-100 vehicle for the first time in 2015, following launches of other private spacecraft such as Orion and Liberty.
Nor do the possibilities end with cargo resupply missions. Except for Orbital Sciences' Cygnus, all of the spacecraft mentioned above are designed to carry crew and supplies. Dragon, CST-100, and Liberty are all expecting to host their first manned crews in 2015, while Orion will wait until 2017. The options for NASA and the European Space Agency are about to expand considerably, which will lessen their dependence on Roscosmos for launching crew, supplies, and satellites.
Not a risk-free plan
The world would have to weigh the consequences of slamming the lid on Putin and Roscosmos in space. One notable concern is that Elon Musk and the United States are hardly alone in their ambitions to create a private space industry. Russian RKK Energia is planning to build a new space shuttle and orbital hotel -- with flights to the darkside of the moon -- by 2016. That sounds a bit ambitious, but it would be ignorant to think the United States is the only country pioneering private development.
Additionally, giving Russia the cold shoulder in space could push it closer to China and India, which risks stoking the flames for a global arms race for innovative and, most worrisome, separate, space technologies. Don't get me wrong: competition is great and will push the envelope for novel technologies. The problem occurs decades down the road when two non-compatible space standards exist. And you thought packing outlet converters on your trip to Europe was a pain.
The bold denial of collaboration could also result in some short-term pain for NASA. For instance, there's a Russian instrument on the Curiosity Rover, and NASA conducts aeronautical tests in Russian wind tunnels. Both problems would be small in comparison to the potential economic harm caused to Roscosmos and could have relatively simple fixes.
Foolish bottom line
It may not seem as if the limited sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and European Union are working, but they target specific and important business interests in the country -- some of which are causing pain in the United States. For instance, a major titanium supplier was affected by the last round of sanctions, which threatened multiple deals in the United States. Knowing that, it may not be unreasonable to suggest imposing cut-throat restrictions on space collaboration with Russia even if some short-term pain will be felt back at home. The private sector is emerging as a force to be reckoned with thanks to innovative newcomers such as SpaceX and well-established incumbents such as Orbital Sciences and Boeing. It could be all the motivation the world needs to hit Russia where it will hurt the most.
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