In war, we risk soldiers’, sailors’ and airmens’ lives every day. In the Navy, sailors are expected to risk, and even sacrifice, their lives if necessary to save a ship. But preserving the ISS, in which the nation has invested more than the cost of dozens of carrier battle groups, isn’t worth the risk of people, a key part of whose job description is exactly to take such risks? Are NASA astronauts national heroes, or national treasures, too valuable to hazard on actual spaceflight?
Well, some may have noticed that we’re in a new Cold War with the successor to our old adversary. Russia is sending assault helicopters and ships to help its ally in Syria remain in power and slaughter its people, not to mention its ongoing aid to Iran with its nuclear/missiles programs. There is a law called the Iran North Korea Syria Non-Proliferation Act (INSKNA) that dictates we not do business with nations that do such things, but it is toothless, at least with regard to Russia. Why?
Because every time we negotiate a new contract with the Russians to get our astronauts to and from the ISS, Congress is compelled to waive INSKNA. Given that Congress wants to continually underfund the commercial crew program which is the only hope of ending our dependence on them (now stretched out to 2017 according to NASA), the State Department is deprived of a means by which to pressure our adversary.
But there’s a solution. The 2017 date assumes business as usual, in which the crew providers meet NASA’s exacting safety standards, most importantly a launch abort system in case of a mishap during parts of the ascent. But SpaceX has now flown two flights with its Dragon capsule, one of which went to and from the ISS a couple weeks ago. On both of which, astronauts would have done just fine, with couches and a life-support system. Were they to accelerate development of the latter, they could probably get crew to and from ISS this year in an emergency. If Boeing were to skip some unmanned testing of their CST capsule (as NASA did with Apollo 8), they could probably be ready in a year or two themselves. There are doubtless astronauts who would be willing to fly such a mission and show that, like their predecessors in the sixties, they too have “the right stuff,” willing to risk their lives for their nation. Safety improvements could come along later, as they always do (there are never absolutes in such things).
The question is, is this an emergency? If the ISS isn’t important, why did we spend so much time and treasure on it? If it is important, why do we make ourselves hostage to a foreign and hostile power for access to it? If non-proliferation isn’t important, why did we pass a law about it?
It is time for the Congress, and perhaps the nation itself, to make up its mind whether or not it is serious about both our national security, and opening up a new frontier. Frontiers have never been opened without risk, and this one will be no different.