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....”

In response to the question of whether additional funding for Commercial Crew would accelerate the program, Bolden said that it would not, but that inadequate funding would further delay it, simply reinforcing the lack of alternate plans.

Congress has in fact consistently failed to fully fund NASA's budget request for Commercial Crew, instead perennially increasing funding for the Saturn-class Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule. Even with the budget increase, those vehicles are not expected to fly before late 2018 (most expect first flight to slip further), and are not cost-effective replacements for the Soyuz. Moreover, many independent analysts don't consider them necessary for human exploration beyond earth orbit – there are more cost-effective ways to do that. The programs are primarily driven by and survive on the desire of the members of the Congressional space committees to maintain jobs in their states and districts.

And despite the desperate need and warning from the administrator, just before the most recent Russian failures, in a vote on June 3rd, the House once again cut the NASA 2016 request for Commercial Crew by about 20%, from $1.243B to an even billion dollars, while once again increasing the SLS budget by almost half a billion, an increase of over a third from the request of $1.365B.

Ignoring the self-serving fecklessness with which Congress is dealing with the issue, the real problem is pusillanimity. There was an answer to Chairman Culberson's question to General Bolden. There is one way, and one way only, to accelerate Commercial Crew and end our dependence on the Russians; and that is, to recognize the importance of human spaceflight, and be more accepting of risk.

The Commercial Crew schedule is driven by NASA's traditional mission-assurance process, with its lengthy reviews and milestones. This in turn is driven by continual lectures by Congress that “safety is the highest priority.”

But that means that actually accomplishing things in space (such as research on potential life-saving technologies), and ending our dependence on the problematic Russians is actually a lower priority. A different way to phrase that would be, “What we are doing in human spaceflight isn't very important.” If safety is “the highest priority,” we might as well just stay home.

As is, with their almost flawless mission performance, Falcon/Dragon are probably already safer than anything we flew in the sixties, even with an untested flight-abort system. If it were important, really important, to get someone to the ISS this month, a life-support system could be quickly cobbled together and even allow crew to go on the currently scheduled cargo Dragon.

The previous arguments against the safety of Commercial Crew rested on a comparison with the “reliable” Soyuz. Recent events suggest that argument no longer applies. We have no “safe” ways to head to the high frontier, and frontiers have never been safe. We have only two realistic options at this point. Abandon the ISS in which we have invested so much, for so many years, or recognize its importance and act accordingly.

The real question for General Bolden is not how we accelerate Commercial Crew, but what is the risk, in terms of probability of loss of crew, of flying sooner. That is a number that SpaceX and NASA could calculate and, with it, we can make rational decisions about just how important human spaceflight is to America. But in my opinion, a real space program would have American astronauts going to orbit in American spaceships, and they would be doing it not in 2017, but tomorrow.