Russian Aggression Carries High Cost for NASA

As Washington reassesses its overall relationship with Russia in the wake of the recent incursion into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, our current space policy may be dramatically affected. Given how crucial the Russians are to supporting it, particularly after the planned Shuttle retirement in 2010, we may have to decide how much the International Space Station (ISS) is really worth to us.

NASA had big problems with ISS support and its plans for returning to the moon before the latest events, but this makes them much worse. It is the result of flawed U.S. space policy going back decades -- back to the original decision to develop the Space Shuttle and make it the sole U.S. means of delivering astronauts to and from orbit. Though it should have been obvious in prospect, we first discovered the folly of this policy in 1986, when Challenger was lost and we didn't fly the Shuttle for almost three years. Fortunately, we didn't have a space station at the time, and it wasn't crucial to send American astronauts into space. But we didn't learn the lesson and develop a backup system to give our space transportation infrastructure some resiliency.

In early 2003, with the loss of Columbia, the consequences were more dire, because the ISS was partially assembled in orbit with crew aboard. During that two-and-a-half-year shutdown, we were totally reliant on the Russians for resupply and crew transfer, using their Soyuz and Progress vehicles until the system returned to flight in mid-2005 and resumed assembly operations. In 2004, recognizing that the Shuttle would never achieve its original goals of low-cost, safe, frequent operations, a new policy was put into place that was intended to not only replace it, but to expand NASA's reach beyond low earth orbit once again, for the first time since the end of Apollo a third of a century ago. In this new "Vision for Space Exploration," the Shuttle was to be retired in 2010, after completion of the ISS, and the new system was to be ready in 2011.

Unfortunately, a combination of inadequate budgets and what many believe to be flawed and risky technical choices on NASA's part have delayed the first flight of the new system to 2015, creating a half-decade "gap" in American human spaceflight that has alarmed many in Congress, though not enough (at least to date) for them to actually do anything about it. While NASA has been spending billions on its new single-point solution (and like the Shuttle, potential failure), the agency has been hedging its bets with a few hundred million for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, to encourage new providers, specifically Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation, to develop new launch services, but so far only for cargo. The so-called COTS D program, which would purchase passenger tickets from the private sector, and in theory reduce or eliminate the dreaded "gap," remains unfunded. Moreover, only SpaceX is developing the necessary capsule to provide such a service, and it just suffered its third straight launch failure, with no successes so far, a couple weeks ago.

So, absent some dramatic change in policy, the table is set for potential dependence on the Russians for at least five years starting in 2010. This is further complicated by the fact that in order for NASA to purchase Soyuz flights, they need Congress to grant them a waiver to the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, of which the Russians are believed to be in continual violation. Absent this waiver, it would be illegal for the agency to continue to use the Russian taxi service.

This is truly ironic on multiple levels, because politically, the only reason that the ISS even exists is that the Clinton administration decided back in 1993 to make it a joint project with the Russians, who were viewed as a "strategic partner" at the end of the Cold War. Its budget only passed the House by one vote in that year, and absent White House support, it would almost certainly have ended then. The idea was to provide funding to Russian scientists and engineers to help us with our space program, in the hope of discouraging them from selling their expertise and hardware to people like the North Koreans and Iran's mullahs -- a notion that some wags characterized as "midnight basketball for the Russians." It clearly didn't work.

This all was the situation before Russia's latest apparent belligerence (and duplicity, with the numerous false "cease fires").

With the recent events in the Caucasus, the scales have finally fallen from the eyes of many in both the administration and Congress who had previously continued to delude themselves that Vladimir Putin's thugocracy was a "strategic partner." In that sense, it is similar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which resulted in (among other things) the western boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.