Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Crimean Crisis Raises Space Station Questions

Expedition 39 Flight Engineer Steve Swanson (left) of NASA, Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov (center) of Russia's Federal Space Agency and Flight Engineer Oleg Artemyev. The crew will be launched to ISS aboard Soyuz TMA-12M spacecraft on March 25, 2014. Credit: NASA/Stephanie Stoll

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to its reliance on Russia, NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a diplomatic roadblock in a project originally made possible by diplomacy: the U.S.-Russian partnership in space exploration.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. Since the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA has had no native human spaceflight capability. With no other options, NASA has relied on the Russian Federal Space Agency and its Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per seat. Any strong move by the U.S. in response to the Crimean crisis could spell the end of Americans flying on Russian spaceships, at least until tensions ease.

NASA and its commercial partners have some projects in the works that can fill the gap, but these are at least two to three years from operational status. Depending on how the Russian-Ukraine crisis develops, those could be two to three years with no Americans in space. 

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?

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.

At the moment, most of NASA's human spaceflight resources are focused on the government-owned Space Launch System, or SLS. This was conceived as a deep-space rocket and spacecraft designed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the last astronauts left the moon in 1972. Although not specifically intended to send crews and supplies to the International Space Station, it could do so if necessary. 

Unfortunately, SLS, which is consuming about $3 billion of NASA's annual budget, won't be ready to fly crew until 2021. And after that, it will be able to fly missions only once every four years under the current development schedule. So the multiple flights per year needed to maintain the International Space Station won't happen with SLS unless things change. 

NASA's commercial crew program is a more promising alternative for flying Americans into space in American-built spacecraft. So far, NASA has split about $1.4 billion between a number of private companies trying to develop new manned spaceships (not counting the money spent on the cargo program that was the crew program's precursor). The companies receiving money under a program called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap, are SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. 

SpaceX is the leader of the pack, having already sent cargo to the ISS. SpaceX engineers designed the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule with crew in mind from the beginning, and the company is now working with NASA to add crew accommodations and escape rockets to the Dragon. Boeing is at work on a crew capsule called the CST-100, while Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser is the most shuttle-like of the commercial vehicles in development—its lifting body shape makes it steerable as a glider when returning to Earth. The current schedule has NASA choosing one or two of these companies this summer to complete a working crew-carrying spacecraft by 2017. 

What should be added next, and soon, is a U.S. capability to return astronauts from orbit — and SpaceX's Dragon capsule could be quickly modified to provide that capability. In the event of a political emergency, U.S. astronauts could extend their tours of duty from the current six months to the 12-month range already approved for next year, or even longer.

The "up-crew" capability is a trickier question. Commercial providers are still three to four years away from providing that function. But it's conceivable that the schedule could be accelerated. And there's already another non-Russian spacecraft that has demonstrated the ability to transport crew safely to and from a space station. This one happens to be made in China.

China could be invited to the space station under conditions that would maintain adequate security barriers. And asking the Chinese to demonstrate stand-by rescue capability would show them the kind of respect they desire — and deserve.

None of these backup procedures would be pretty, or anywhere near optimal, or risk-free. But they do provide alternatives to finding the U.S. space effort effectively held hostage.

A U.S.-Russian rift in orbit would raise problems large and small. For example, there's a little-noticed proviso in the space station agreement that allows the Russians to possess the only handguns in space. That's a problem with no technical solution. But other problems may have technical solutions, and that's what NASA does best.

1 comment:

  1. ROTFL! You DIDN'T HAVE to retire the Shuttle until you had a replacement ship available. Look at the B52--did the military finally retire it? We will get what we deserve out of this stupid 'foresight'.