The United States has the worlds most accomplished manned space program. Not only has the US sent men to the moon, but for decades the United States was the most capable space-faring nation, launching several missions per year and leading the world in manned space capabilities. Even the Space Shuttle, for all its expense and flaws, was a highly capable spacecraft.
Today, however, the US has no ability to send humans into space. China has a limited manned spaceflight program and Russia is now the primary space program for crewed spacecraft. The US, however, does own a large portion of the International Space Station and is under treaty obligation to provide crew and support to the space station. To fulfill its need to send crew members to the Space Station, the US must pay the Russian government tens of millions of dollars for a seat in a Soyuz space capsule.
Obviously, this is a pretty embarrassing place to be. Just 20 years ago, it was NASA coming to the rescue of a floundering Russian space program, when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself unable to support a full roster of missions to its own space station. Now the tables are turned, and the US is starting to look more like a fallen superpower.
But there is a more practical and problematic issue that arises with the dependence on Russia for space transportation. When international tensions flare, as they now are, things become highly uncertain for space access.
Russia Crisis Raises Space Station Questions, But NASA Has Options
OUSTON — Thanks to its reliance on Russia, NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a diplomatic roadblock in a project originally made possible by diplomacy: the U.S.-Russian partnership in space exploration.
And if Russia’s confrontation with Ukraine and the West turns into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation, as feared, it could have equally profound and disturbing consequences for space exploration.
This month’s comings and goings at the International Space Station highlight the interdependence of the U.S. and Russian space efforts: Next week, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is due to return from the space station aboard a Russian capsule, alongside two Russian cosmonauts. A couple of weeks after that, NASA’s Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.
Under the current arrangement, NASA astronauts cannot get to and from the station without Russian help, due to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. The ticket price for each astronaut is $70 million, payable to the Russians.
The United States and Russia are not just “joined at the hip” on the space station. Numerous other rocket projects rely on either Russian or Ukrainian space hardware and services. Even U.S. national security satellites are powered into orbit on an American rocket with a Russian-built rocket engine.
What if the Soyuz spacecraft suddenly became unavailable for use by American astronauts, contract or no contract? Would it be the end of U.S. human spaceflight? Would it kick off a new round of extortionary price-gouging, both fiscal and diplomatic?
Well, maybe not.
Moving away from co-dependence
It’s cold comfort that the Russians rely on NASA almost as much as NASA relies on the Russians. If Russia monopolizes up-down transport, the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia’s orbital hardware couldn’t function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.
However reluctant the partners may be in such an awkward “space marriage,” it has until now provided an astonishing degree of robustness and flexibility.
Recent developments have brought the space station closer to the point where it could be operated without Russian involvement if necessary. The current crisis provides good reasons to accelerate that shift and even to push for one crucial near-term capability: crew rescue.
Already, two U.S. commercial cargo delivery projects — SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, as well as Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule — have replaced the justifiably retired space shuttle. European and Japanese robot freighters can also resupply the space station. Even though some parts of the Antares come from Ukraine and Russia, and even though the European cargo freighter must dock at the Russian end of the station, Russia’s cargo monopoly has been broken.