NASA Over a Russian Barrel

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).