NASA Over a Russian Barrel

Having demonstrated the ability to deliver and reenter the capsule, with cargo (they carried a wheel of cheese on board), the next step is to demonstrate the ability to dock with the ISS. Once this has been done, SpaceX will be able to start to support the ISS and make up for some of the loss of shuttle capabilities. Beyond this, they (along with other companies) were recently awarded seventy-five million dollars to initiate development of systems that will allow the Dragon to deliver and return crew, as well as serve as a lifeboat.

Now enter the Russians. The ISS has been a very nice bit of business for them, providing them with a lot of hard currency (to the degree that such a phrase can be said to apply to the dollar any more) during the nineties in its construction, and since it became permanently crewed over a decade ago. Because they have a monopoly on lifeboat services and (starting next year) on crew transportation, they’ve been accordingly jacking up the price (the latest contract is for $63M per seat, while SpaceX proposes $20M). In addition, they’ve gotten a continual pass on the Iran/North-Korea/Syria Non-Proliferation Act, because Congress has been forced to waive its requirements for them every time a new contract is negotiated, despite the fact that they continue to help Iran develop nukes and missiles.

Obviously, it is not in their interest to see competition emerge at all, let alone from an upstart private American company with whom they (like the Chinese) will not be able to compete on price. Happily for them, as one of the “partners” on the ISS, they have the ability to throw a wrench into the competitor’s works, as they demonstrated on Friday. They do, in fact, have veto power on issues involving safety. It is quite convenient for them that the only real way to demonstrate the ability to safely dock with the station is to do so, a feat that they can declare “unsafe,” and thus result in a Catch-22 situation in which the burden of proof is on SpaceX to do something that it will not be allowed to do. Other unmanned vehicles, from Europe and Japan, have docked to the ISS in the past, with no objections from the Russians, but those vehicles didn’t threaten their crew-transportation monopoly.

Congress, of course, threatened last year to make things worse. The House originally wanted to provide zero funds for commercial crew, diverting them entirely to the make-work Senate Launch System. Fortunately, a limited degree of sanity prevailed, and while the Congress still got its three-billion-dollar earmark, there is also funding for commercial crew, which offers the only hope of ending the gap and our reliance on the extortionate Russians. In the meantime, NASA has few good choices, if it wants to continue participation in the ISS. We may be shipping money to Russia that could go to private American companies, and allowing them to continue to aid our enemies, for years to come.