Congress Fiddles with Monster Rockets While Human Spaceflight Burns
On May 16th, a Russian Proton booster delivered what remained of a Mexican communications satellite to the turf in Siberia, rather than to its intended orbit. On the same day, there was a failed reboost attempt of the International Space Station (ISS) by a Russian Progress cargo vehicle. Those failures occurred less than three weeks after the failed mission of a Russian Soyuz launcher to deliver a fresh Progress vehicle with its supplies to the ISS, on April 28th. That failure caused a supply shortage, and delay of at least one month in the rotation of our astronauts currently on the station, originally scheduled for the 26th of May. It has also increased pressure on SpaceX for a successful cargo delivery in an uncrewed Dragon capsule to ISS late this month.
This was, sadly, not atypical. Just in the past six years, the Russians have now had sixteen space mission failures, one of which had NASA actually contemplating temporarily abandoning the ISS in 2011. Their industry is beset by strikes, underpaid workers, and the need to rapidly reproduce hardware that in the past would have been acquired from Ukraine, the flow of which has been interrupted by Russia's ongoing war on that nation. In addition, as reported in a story this past weekend, there is also massive corruption. With each failure, there is a management shakeup, but the underlying systemic quality problems never seem to get fixed.
These most recent failures should be the last straw in demonstrating the immediate need to free the nation's civil space policy from dependence on the dysfunctional Russian space industry. But Congress continues to misprioritize the budget and the direction to NASA necessary to do so.
NASA has had a program underway for several years, called Commercial Crew, to end such dependence, by once again flying American astronauts to space on American rockets from American soil. One of the providers, the aforementioned SpaceX, recently had a successful test on the launch pad of the launch-abort system for its new crewed version of the Dragon capsule. When operational, it will be launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which has a perfect record of 18 for 18 successes in its primary mission.
Because it can carry seven, instead of the six on the two Soyuz capsules, its use as a lifeboat would allow the crew complement of the ISS to be increased, perhaps doubling the available research time. The current plan is for it and Boeing's version to be operational in 2017. Until then, we are reliant on Russian rockets that, after this past month's failures, we should no longer consider reliable.
Which raises the obvious question: Could that program be accelerated? It's a question, in fact, that the House appropriations committee for NASA's budget asked the NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, in early March. The issue at that time wasn't the reliability of the Russian hardware per se, but whether Bolden had a contingency plan in place if the geopolitical situation resulted in the Russans refusing to support the transport of NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.
His answer, shocking to many, including Chairman John Culberson (R-Texas) was, essentially, no.
“Our backup plan...would be to mutually agree that the space station and space exploration is coming to an end. We would make an orderly evacuation....”