The United States pretend space program
By John D. Turner
20 Apr 2014

Well this is just ducky. Due to the ongoing mess in Ukraine, where Russia is flexing its military muscle, NASA has suspended contact with its counterparts in Russia.

So how, pray tell, are we now supposed to get our astronauts back and forth between here and the ISS? After all, we no longer have a manned space program - no longer have the capability to send our astronauts into orbit ourselves, and are paying the Russians to do so (at nearly $71 million a pop). Now that NASA is no longer talking to the Russian government, what happens to the folks we have on the ISS?

Yes Virginia, real world events do have real world consequences; in this case, not only the decision by Russia to annex Crimea and cast covetous eyes further afield in Ukraine, but also the decision, made here in the US, to divest ourselves of our capability to send our astronauts into orbit without the assistance of the aforementioned Russians to make that happen.

To be sure, at least at this point, ISS operations have not been impacted. In fact, NASA has stated the following: “Operations aboard the International Space Station, which is a wholly collaborative effort between the two nations, are exempt from this suspension.” That is all well and good, but who’s to say that happy state of affairs will continue? After all, the suspension of “ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation” was a unilateral response by NASA – it was not initiated by the Russians. What’s to keep them from issuing their own response? What guarantee do we have that they won’t escalate by cutting off our access, or, at the very least, raising the price? And what possible response could NASA have if they did?

As the author of the article notes, the Russians have a “transportation monopoly” when it comes to sending folks to and from the ISS. This monopoly is a beast of our own creation. No one forced the United States to give up its shuttle program. No one forced the United States to forgo manned space flight. We did those things to ourselves in the interests of "saving money;" this at a time when we are hemorrhaging money on stupid stuff at a rate never before seen in the history of our country. We chose to grant Russia that monopoly. And we seem supremely unconcerned about the ramifications of that act.

That Russian monopoly is not in any danger of being upset by us anytime soon; maybe the Chinese, but not us. Unless radical change ensues, we will be dependent on others to get us to orbit for quite some time. And apparently, our current administration is good with that.

Meanwhile, Charles Bolden, the head of NASA accuses Congress for keeping Americans reliant on Russian technology. Said Mr. Bolden, referring to Congress, “The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians," the statement continued. "It's that simple."

If only it were, indeed, that simple. But once again, this administration, using Mr. Bolden as its mouthpiece, is lying to us. The only thing that surprises me here is that the administration didn’t use this as yet another opportunity to shift the blame to President Bush. After all, it was President Bush who decided to end the Shuttle program, putting us in the position of depending on the Russians in the first place.

Of course, the idea then was to replace shuttle with Constellation, a combination of a new space capsule (Orion) and two new launchers, the Ares I and Ares V heavy lift vehicle. True, there would be a gap during which we would need to depend on the Russians, but that gap was only supposed to last four years or so until Constellation was up and running.

Instead, President Obama decided to kill the Constellation program by omitting funding for it from his proposed 2011 budget.

He later relented, deciding to just slow work on it, dropping the name "Constellation" (disassociating it from Bush), and severely downsizing Orion from a crewed spacecraft for flights to the ISS, the Moon, and ultimately Mars, into an emergency escape capsule for the ISS, and dropping the two Ares boosters altogether. This is particularly ironic as well, since the Russian Soyez capsules that are now the primary means of getting back and forth from Earth to the ISS were originally used as emergency escape capsules for the ISS.

President Obama’s “vision” for American manned spaceflight calls for the design of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle, imaginatively named the “Space Launch System,” to be completed by 2015, followed by construction and, it is hoped, an initial test launch in 2017 (after he leaves office).

Meanwhile, Orion, fitted to a Delta IV Heavy rocket, is supposed to fly this fall, although skepticism that NASA will meet that schedule abounds. This will be an unmanned test shot of the capsule itself; the Delta IV is not a man-rated booster. The system is nowhere near operational; the rocket that is supposed to be used with it hasn't even been built yet. They have test fired engines and built some basic structure and tested the models in wind tunnels but have not actually built one yet, much less test launched one. Both the Orion capsule and the new as-yet-unbuilt booster are based on Apollo and Saturn V technology, last used back in the ‘70s.

Despite the fact that we seem to be moving backward instead of forward, I hope that Orion does indeed get off the ground in the fall, and that the test goes well; it will be good for us to be able to depend on ourselves to get into space for a change - particularly when depending on the Russians becomes a bit dicey. And I trust American hardware much more than I trust Russian hardware.

Of course, we have a LONG way to go. This lash-up isn't ready to fly tomorrow, or next year, or this decade, for that matter. The first crewed flight isn't scheduled until 2021 at the earliest - assuming funding stays intact that long. Good Luck! And this totally ignores the fact that Orion, as defined by the Obama administration, is not intended for deep space exploration, but instead, as mentioned above, as an escape capsule for the ISS. But the ISS is only funded through 2020, and is as of now projected to be deorbited at that point. What sense does it make to develop an emergency escape system for the ISS that won't be ready to fly until after the ISS is destroyed?

Be that as it may, Mr. Bolden was not finished. The irony of blaming our current inability to launch our own astronauts on Congress pales beside the following quote from the current head of Not About Space Anymore (NASA). I must admit that my mouth hung open in total shock and disbelief when I read the paragraph below:

"NASA is laser-focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space," Wednesday night's statement read. "This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration's for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches-and the jobs they support-back to the United States next year."

Which is absolute and utter recycled bovine feed. President Obama has never made this a priority the entire time he has been president. In fact, he has de-emphasized it from the beginning. It is worth remembering that Mr. Charles Bolden, who was put into his position by President Obama, is the same NASA director who, back in 2010, informed us that President Obama had charged him with three goals: "re-inspiring children to want to get into science and math, expand our international relationships, and finally, find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering." Please note that there was nothing in there about going into space, building rockets, flying to and from the ISS, going to the moon or Mars, or anything remotely NASAish at all.

Mr. Bolden’s claim that “return[ing] human spaceflight launches to American soil and end[ing] our reliance on Russia to get into space” has been a “top priority” of the Obama administration is patently false. 2014 – 5 is 2009, if my math is correct, the year Mr. Obama took office. Had this been a “top priority” of the Obama administration since 2009, we would not have been greeted by the spectacle of Obama zeroing out funding for the project designed to give us that capability in his 2011 budget. If it were a “top priority” surely priority funding would have been provided, allowing us to have that capability before the scheduled termination of the ISS made the capability moot?

Meanwhile, we can't get to space without the Russians - and we aren't talking to them anymore. And even if this current situation is resolved and the Russians continue to allow us to pay them for access to the station we built with American taxpayer money, how long until the next situation arises? Perhaps in a few years we can hitch a ride with the Chinese. Great! Then we will have TWO different countries (neither of which has our interests at heart, and both of which seem to have territorial ambitions (among other things) that are likely to put us at loggerheads with from time to time) to be beholding to when it comes to access to space.

And the United States still considers itself a "superpower?"