Get PJ Media on your Apple

Time to End Our Dependence on Russian Spaceships

The crisis in the Ukraine shows the insanity of relying on Russia to get us to the ISS.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

March 5, 2014 - 11:35 pm
Page 1 of 2  Next ->   View as Single Page

As the artillery rolls into Ukraine, and the notion that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an ally has been revealed to one and all to be a fantasy, it’s time to finally end our policy insanity of relying on Russian spaceships for American access to space.

Since the last space shuttle flight two-and-a-half years ago, our only means of getting NASA astronauts (or anyone) to the ISS has been on the Soyuz launch system, at an ever-rising cost, now over $70M a seat as of last August. Alternate competing U.S. means to replace it are under development in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, but Congress has been continually underfunding the effort in order to instead funnel money to the Space Launch System, a giant rocket with no funded payloads and no apparent mission other than providing job security in the states and districts of those on the congressional space committees.

This issue goes beyond that of sending American taxpayer dollars to the Russian space establishment that could instead be purchasing lower-cost American flights from American providers and creating a new high-tech American industry.

What is nuclear non-proliferation worth to us? This shouldn’t be an issue of civil space policy, but it is. The Iran/North Korea/Syria Non-Proliferation Act (INKSNA) states that we will not trade with any nation that supports any of those countries in the development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Russia has been doing both for years, and in order for us to continue to utilize their services for ISS access and lifeboats, Congress has to continually waive the law, essentially rendering it toothless with respect to one of the most significant violators of it (a year ago, they waived it out to 2020).

There are research implications as well. The ISS is currently limited to a crew of six, due to a requirement that they always be capable of evacuation to earth, using two three-person Soyuz capsules as lifeboats. Because most of the crew time is devoted to maintaining the facility itself, NASA has found it difficult to have more than one crew member doing actual research. Thus, adding just one more crew member to the station could probably more than double the amount of research performed there.

This has real-world costs. For instance, research by the Astrogenetix company in the weightless environment has shown some promise for finding ways to control Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a super bug that kills thousands in the U.S. annually from staph infections for which antibiotics are ineffective. That is, every single day that a cure isn’t found costs about fifty lives in the U.S. alone. Balance that against the slight possibility that we might lose a few astronauts.

Assuming that the lifeboat requirement is justified (dozens winter over annually at Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole with no means of evacuation), Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon capsule can carry seven crew members. That is, if it were to be used as a lifeboat (with the addition of a necessary new docking adapter that will be available in the next year or so) the additional crew could be added to dramatically improve ISS productivity.

Comments are closed.

All Comments   (18)
All Comments   (18)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
The crisis in the Ukraine shows the insanity of US foreign policy that uses NGOs and agent provocateurs to do the dirty work of empire.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh so what...cooperation is NOT a bad thing..........
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Splitting from the Russians is not just a transport issue. ISS is a joint venture. Splitting would almost certainly end the ISS.
Might not be the worst outcome, but should be considered.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nuts.

Space is a loser.

Let the Russians continue to lose money on the space race.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Note that using boosters and spacecraft built by private firms under government contracts is the way the unmanned side of the US space program has been done since the very start. This is heralded as a tremendous new innovation in some quarters, but it's business as usual for everyone but the manned space people.

And a key element of that business is a government ability to ensure that what is being purchased meets requirements and is safe for both the government personnel who will fly aboard it and the general public, who could be exposed to the launch hazard. Many people touting "commercial" solutions forget that, if they ever knew it.

As for the Atlas V, it is a tremendously successful program, developed under the control of the USAF, as was the Delta IV - while NASA was spending its money on the unsuccessful X-33 as a Shuttle replacement. But - the Atlas V uses Russian designed and built engines. Use of the RD-180 was one of the very few options available to US firms after US rocket engine development as well as most production of new engines was abandoned as a result of the decision to rely on the Space Shuttle. By the way, in that same era, we took 25 Atlas boosters we had in storage and ran bulldozers over them, since the Shuttle meant they would never be needed.

The number of truly horrific decisions made relative to the US Space Program is simply incredible.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Agreed. But the "fantasy" is thinking this "crisis" would not have happened if only Bo Jangles was not the president. Actually, back in the day, namely the cold war, colleges used to teach Russian history. The Rus originated in the Ukraine. The Russians are not going to let the Ukraine go anymore than the Americans are going to let the former provinces of Mexico rejoin Mexico.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank a democrat controlled congress trying to sabotage a republican president. Thank the GOP for reaching a bipartisan compromise with the democrats.

Thank the news media for giving voice to the faction that wants federal spending to trickle through their hands on the way to 'help the poor'.

Thank the politicians who don't have to courage or vision to defend a future.

Thank your neighbors who vote without thinking, who vote without doing their home work, who vote democrat blindly accepting what they are told.

There is a lot of blame to go around, but the purpose of leadership is doing the right thing for the right reason despite vocal opposition.

Hell, we don't even have a maritime navy, or adequate land or air based military, let alone a rational space program.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Jim Oberg says: Temporary lack of independent access is uncomfortable and constrictive in many ways, and must end, but balance it with Russia's lack of anywhere to GO without the ISS and US services available there. It's a mutual co-dependence that has surprised me with its stability. Also "NASA has found it difficult to have more than one crew member doing actual research" overlooks the fact that most operation of station science gear is teleoperation via the awesome near-continuous multi-megabit/sec comm links [Russia piggybacks there, too], with on average three or four project scientists at their keyboards interacting with the in-space instruments. Crew participation is largely the critical setup and maintenance work. More on-orbit science time is certainly desirable, particularly non-programmed whimsical followup of 'funnies' that only on-scene humans can notice. We need to clone Don Pettit.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Assuming that the lifeboat requirement is justified (dozens winter over annually at Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole with no means of evacuation)..."

South Pole Station crew won't die in the event of a pinhole leak, seal failure or loss of power - and they are only hours away from rescue by ski-equipped aircraft.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Skis find it tough to slide over snow so cold it doesn't melt under pressure, making the coefficient of friction more like desert sand. -- Jim Oberg
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's amazing how much has changed for the ISS so quickly. There are currently about four separate, non-Russkie cargo ship systems for resupplying the ISS, of which the Falcon/Dragon is the best known.

In view of the designed-by-committee flying widowmaker that was the Space Shuttle (it never HAD an escape system, except for the two ejection seats that John Young and Bob Crippen rode in the first flight) the idea that we can't fly the Dragonrider without its "integrated pusher" escape system is a hoot. As soon as the Common Berthing Mechanism is up and in place I say go for it and let the rotten, corrupt remnants of Baikonur sink back into the desert sands.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
1 2 Next View All