Presidential science adviser John Holdren of the White House Office of Science and Technology recently sat down with Science Magazine to discuss a variety of issues including the imminent end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2010. While this is hardly a blip on the radar of many, little more than a year from now Space Shuttles will stop launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as NASA transitions to its Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles as part of Project Constellation. The result of this, under current budgetary limitations, is at least 4.5 years will pass without the United States having available a NASA built vehicle to send U.S. Astronauts into low earth orbit or to the International Space Station.
So how will our guys and gals travel to the International Space Station? The same way they did after the loss of Shuttle Columbia in 2003: via the Russian built Soyuz rocket and capsule, itself a shaky plan as tensions between the United States and Russia are on a downward slope by all accounts.
This development doesn’t seem to trouble Holdren. Indeed, in the interview he also details his openness to the idea of another space-faring nation taking our Astronauts aloft:
And what we’ll have to do in that interim period is rely on our international partners, which means the Russians. It might also be the Chinese, depending on how our relationship develops.
Ah, yes. The Chinese. With only three manned missions (that’s TOTAL, mind you) under their belt using the Shenzhou spacecraft since 2003, the Chinese would seem to be a perfect option if we wanted to (1) place the lives of U.S. Astronauts at the mercy of a spacecraft still not man-rated to U.S. standards and (2) provide the Chinese direct access to the International Space Station (where they cannot visit as they were not a constructing partner). Using the Chinese would be an excellent mechanism by which to teach them a great deal about U.S. spaceflight operations and would yield no benefit to us.
At a time when a presence in low Earth orbit is increasingly necessary from a national security perspective, and with China already showing quite aggressive and provocative tendencies in that arena, for John Holdren to even be open to such a proposition demonstrates an extreme naivete with regards to manned spaceflight, national security and the necessity for the United States to remain on the vanguard of technology and launch architecture systems.
Not surprisingly, Science Magazine was perplexed by Holdren’s position regarding the Chinese, which allowed him to cover his rear to some degree in their follow up question as to the safety of Chinese spacecraft:
I think it’s possible in principle to develop the required degree of confidence in the Chinese. I put it out there only as speculation, but I don’t think it should be ruled out.
How about we DO rule it out, John, and you tell your boss that maybe now would be a good time to stop dragging his feet and actually appoint a NASA Administrator rather than letting our leadership in space continue to wither.