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NASA Over a Russian Barrel

The Russians are asking exorbitant fees to transport our astronauts to the space station while preventing American private companies from doing the job.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

April 27, 2011 - 12:00 am

After decades of short-sighted parochialism, our space policy chickens are finally coming home to roost.

This past Friday, Russian news agencies quoted a Russian Space Agency official as refusing to let “unsafe” vehicles dock to the International Space Station (ISS).

Sounds reasonable, right?

But it’s not what it seems. In reality, it is a bare-knuckled attempt to prevent competition from an upstart American company.

Here’s the background. Back in 2004, in the wake of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the Bush administration decided to end the program in 2010 (last year –  its two final flights have been delayed into the current year, but the last one will almost certainly occur before 2011 is out). But this presented a problem. The shuttle was America’s only means of accessing the ISS. Thus, without a shuttle, or something to replace its functional capability to get American astronauts to and from orbit, the decision would make us completely, rather than only partially, dependent on the Russian Soyuz (that vehicle has been the “lifeboat” for the ISS, because the shuttle could only stay in orbit for a couple weeks, and couldn’t be docked there for months like the Soyuz).

Thus, at the time of the decision to retire the shuttle, the administration also declared, as part of the Vision for Space Exploration announced in January of that year, that NASA would develop a “Crew Exploration Vehicle” (CEV). In addition to allowing astronauts to venture beyond earth orbit, this new vehicle, to be available no later than 2014 (and hopefully much sooner), would also be used to provide both access to and from ISS and a lifeboat function, reducing or eliminating our dependence on the Russians.

Unfortunately, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to 2014. Instead of focusing on the CEV, which could have been launched on an existing vehicle (such as a United Launch Alliance Atlas V), Mike Griffin’s NASA decided to build an all-new launcher, called Ares I (as a down payment on a much larger one later, designated Ares V). Part of the rationale for this was to maintain congressional support for the program, by utilizing the same (expensive) work force that was currently involved in shuttle operations, in no-bid, sole-source contracts.

In 2009, a blue-ribbon panel led by space industry veteran Norman Augustine concluded that after spending ten billion dollars on the Ares and Orion (the latter had become the new name for the CEV), they were still tens of billions of dollars, and at least eight years away, from completion. That is, by diverting NASA’s scarce resources on a flawed and unnecessary new rocket design with no competition, the agency has actually increased the “gap” during which we would be utterly reliant on the Russians, from this year into the indefinite future.

Fortunately, there was a back-up plan, reportedly imposed on NASA by the White House, in which other companies were being groomed to at least provide cargo logistics to the ISS with the end of the shuttle. Called the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS), it was a series of low-cost, fixed-price contracts, one of which culminated in a successful flight of the pressurized Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 launch vehicle in December, by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

Having demonstrated the ability to deliver and reenter the capsule, with cargo (they carried a wheel of cheese on board), the next step is to demonstrate the ability to dock with the ISS. Once this has been done, SpaceX will be able to start to support the ISS and make up for some of the loss of shuttle capabilities. Beyond this, they (along with other companies) were recently awarded seventy-five million dollars to initiate development of systems that will allow the Dragon to deliver and return crew, as well as serve as a lifeboat.

Now enter the Russians. The ISS has been a very nice bit of business for them, providing them with a lot of hard currency (to the degree that such a phrase can be said to apply to the dollar any more) during the nineties in its construction, and since it became permanently crewed over a decade ago. Because they have a monopoly on lifeboat services and (starting next year) on crew transportation, they’ve been accordingly jacking up the price (the latest contract is for $63M per seat, while SpaceX proposes $20M). In addition, they’ve gotten a continual pass on the Iran/North-Korea/Syria Non-Proliferation Act, because Congress has been forced to waive its requirements for them every time a new contract is negotiated, despite the fact that they continue to help Iran develop nukes and missiles.

Obviously, it is not in their interest to see competition emerge at all, let alone from an upstart private American company with whom they (like the Chinese) will not be able to compete on price. Happily for them, as one of the “partners” on the ISS, they have the ability to throw a wrench into the competitor’s works, as they demonstrated on Friday. They do, in fact, have veto power on issues involving safety. It is quite convenient for them that the only real way to demonstrate the ability to safely dock with the station is to do so, a feat that they can declare “unsafe,” and thus result in a Catch-22 situation in which the burden of proof is on SpaceX to do something that it will not be allowed to do. Other unmanned vehicles, from Europe and Japan, have docked to the ISS in the past, with no objections from the Russians, but those vehicles didn’t threaten their crew-transportation monopoly.

Congress, of course, threatened last year to make things worse. The House originally wanted to provide zero funds for commercial crew, diverting them entirely to the make-work Senate Launch System. Fortunately, a limited degree of sanity prevailed, and while the Congress still got its three-billion-dollar earmark, there is also funding for commercial crew, which offers the only hope of ending the gap and our reliance on the extortionate Russians. In the meantime, NASA has few good choices, if it wants to continue participation in the ISS. We may be shipping money to Russia that could go to private American companies, and allowing them to continue to aid our enemies, for years to come.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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