Russian Aggression Carries High Cost for NASA

The most immediate issue on which it's interesting to speculate is the social atmosphere aboard the ISS this week. Interestingly, while all three of the current station crew on Expedition 17 have Russian(ish) names, and two of them are employed by the Russian space agency, none of them are necessarily Russian. The station commander, Sergei Volkov, is a Ukrainian, and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko is from Turkmenistan. Greg Chamitoff, NASA's representative, was born in Canada. Neither of the two former Soviet Republics (and presumably, their citizens) are likely to view the Russian actions with favor, given that they could be next. Thus, given the absence of actual Russians aboard, there's no obvious current reason for strained orbital relations, at least for now.

Back on earth, though, will be a different story. The likelihood that Congress will again waive the non-proliferation act for new Soyuz flights when the current contract expires in 2011, while never high, has probably just plummeted. And even if we were willing to continue to purchase flights, it's quite conceivable that Russia will charge extortionate fees as retaliation for whatever other sanctions we impose as a result of the Georgian aggression. In either case, it means that if the Shuttle is really retired on schedule, the U.S. will have no politically affordable means of accessing the station into which we have poured tens of billions of dollars. In this area, the leverage currently lies with the Russians -- we need them more than they need us.

So what are the options?

The most tempting one, particularly for Florida politicians, will be to simply continue to fly the Shuttle past 2010. This will have budgetary impacts, because it costs at least three billion per year to maintain the Shuttle work force and infrastructure (regardless of flight rate), and that isn't currently accounted for in the agency's out-year budgets. It will not only take resources from the planned development of Ares/Orion, but will also delay the necessary pad modifications needed for the new vehicle, which is planned to use Shuttle launch facilities. There is also concern that the system will have to be "re-certified" for use past that period (though no one really knows what this even means when you consider it was never "certified" in the first place). An argument could be made that this already occurred in the thorough technical scrubbing that took place after the destruction of Columbia.

One other critical and urgent issue is that the production lines for Shuttle hardware are being shut down (including external tank production in Michoud, Louisiana later this month), and restarting them later may prove to be quite expensive, so decisions need to be made now to keep this option open.

A second option is to simply abandon the ISS, or leave it to the current foreign partners -- Europe, Japan ... and Russia. The European ATV can do resupply on an Ariane launcher, but they would still be reliant on the Russians for crew change out. They might even invite the Chinese to participate, with their new crew launcher. This course would probably be politically unpalatable to the U.S. government, given the many tens of billions in investment by the U.S. taxpayer and the fact that a major reason to have a space station is for national prestige.

A third one is to accelerate development of alternatives, such as the SpaceX Dragon capsule, launched either on that company's planned Falcon 9 launcher or on a Lockheed-Martin Atlas V. This will require a dramatic increase in funding, particularly if the Atlas RD-180 main engines have to be manufactured in the US by Pratt & Whitney, rather than the current practice of buying them from the Russians. Bob Bigelow is already working these issues for his own private space stations, and further funding could make it happen sooner.

None of the choices are easy or obvious. They will all involve high costs in either taxpayer dollars or lost opportunities, at a time of burgeoning deficits when there are no federal dollars to spare.

Probably most at risk are NASA's planned Ares launchers and Orion crew module, their proposed implementation of the president's vision for lunar and solar-system exploration by humans. Already overweight, with many unresolved technical issues, cost increases, and schedule slips, the political pressure will be overwhelming to review and overhaul the current plans. The internal contradictions of our schizophrenic civil space policy have been straining at it for years. It's almost certain that the most recent international events will take it well past the breaking point.

Almost exactly half a century after the passage of the Space Act that created the space agency, we can only hope that we'll finally get a rational rethink of how we plan to actually open the frontier, with an emphasis on commercialization and free enterprise, and redundancy, rather than another fragile and expensive centralized government solution. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, it's hard to be very hopeful.