The successful launch of the space shuttle Atlantis on Monday marks the beginning of the end of the American space shuttle program. The final seven missions are to be dedicated almost entirely to transporting spare parts to the International Space Station. When shuttle Discovery returns from space next September, Americas ability to put men and women into space will be over for the foreseeable future. NASA’s Constellation program, the successor to the space shuttle, faces critical problems and will not be operational until at least 2015.
During this time, we’re going to be completely dependent on Russia to get American astronauts into space. International cooperation is a fine thing, but it’s more than a little disturbing to think that as of 2011 the U.S. will have the same access to the Space Station that we built as does Brazil or Mozambique.
NASA’s “big plan” is to purchase seats on Russian Soyuz rockets for the next few years in order to keep an American presence in space until the completion of the Constellation program. Russia has been giving tourists rides into space for a couple of years. Computer software executive Charles Simonyi has paid Russia $25 million a trip for two trips to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz rockets. Russia’s space agency chief has now said there is no more room for space tourists, likely because they are going to get a better deal from the American taxpayer. Apparently due to inflation it will cost the United States a bit more than $25 million for the same ride.
In May of this year, Alexei Krasnoy, director of manned flight programs at Roscosmos told the Novasti news agency, “We have reached an agreement with NASA to increase the price for a single seat on Soyuz space craft for US astronauts traveling to the ISS to $51 million.”
This is simply really bad planning on the part of our government. When the decision was made by the Bush Administration in 2004 that we would discontinue the shuttle program, provisions should have been made to keep the shuttle flying until a replacement had been fully developed instead of relying on ‘allies’.
There are voices that warned us of potential trouble ahead. In an E-mail that was leaked to the Orlando Sentinel in August of 2008, NASA administrator Michael Griffin stated “My guess is that there is going to be a lengthy period with no U.S. crew on the ISS after 2011.”
He also added that Russia’s Federal Space Agency could operate the $100 billion space station without the U.S. “Practically speaking, the Russians can sustain ISS without the U.S. crew… We need them, they do not ‘need’ us.”
Imagine there is some political ‘falling out’ between Russia and the United States sometime in the next couple of years. There will be nothing in the world stopping them from telling us that we are no longer welcome to ride on their rockets. America will have carried most of the weight in building this $100 billion station and then simply abandoned it due to a lack of forward thinking and planning.
The newest shuttle in the fleet is Endeavor, which is 17 years old. The other two, Atlantis and Discovery, are 24 and 25 years old respectively. We should keep Endeavor flying one or two missions a year to ensure that America maintains a presence in space. It would also give the United States a certain amount of leverage in dealing with nations who MAY, but most likely DO NOT have the best interests of the United States in mind.
I’m not holding my breath for Barack Obama to fix this lack of planning though. He is already begining to talk about domestic spending cuts next year and I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that NASA is going to be one of the things he will be tempted to cut. You can bet those cuts will not come from any of the social programs.
Cross posted at American Logic