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The Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to lift off this week in one of the final three missions of the Shuttle program. Once the Shuttles are mothballed and shipped off to the museums, the United States will have no way of delivering its own into space, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, U.S. astronauts will fly on Russian rockets, while NASA tries to leverage commercial space assets. Most Americans either don’t care or don’t know about the nation’s looming self-imposed exile from space. That will change as Russia, China and others surge ahead in space—and America lowers its sights.
To be sure, there’s plenty of blame to go around for this predicament. For decades, policymakers of both parties and the public at large shrugged at the manmade miracle of space flight, failed to appreciate the nation’s reliance on space for everyday life, and failed to invest in or plan for post-Shuttle space capabilities. For example, when the Ares I-X rocket was tested in October 2009, it marked the first new crew-capable spacecraft unveiled by NASA in 30 years.
Washington’s benign neglect of NASA and space began to change in 2004, when President George W. Bush announced a plan to use the best of the Shuttle and Apollo programs in developing a new system—known as Constellation—to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit and deep into space. The plan called for retiring the remaining Space Shuttles—Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis—in order to make way for Constellation’s Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I launch vehicle. By shutting down the Shuttle program, NASA would be able to divert precious economic, human and material resources to the Constellation program.
As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell noted in an open letter last year, “Constellation was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.” But President Barack Obama, stubbornly intent on being the anti-Bush, canceled Constellation, choosing instead to use NASA resources to purchase more Russian-outsourced missions and to encourage the development of commercial rockets.
These alternatives are simply not worthy of the United States, the greatest space-faring nation in history. As former NASA administrator Michael Griffin noted in 2008, “It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that.”
What few Americans realize is that Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station after the Columbia disaster in 2003. Of course, collaborating with Russia by choice is far different than counting on Putin and his puppets out of necessity.
This is very troublesome, especially given Russia’s open hostility to U.S. interests and policies. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer, blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites. What’s to stop the Kremlin from demanding that, in exchange for a trip into space, the U.S. deactivate missile defense assets in Central Europe or the Med, look the other way as the Russian army finishes what it started in Georgia, or accede to Russian control over some new energy pipeline.
Just as worrisome is Russia’s space competence. Earlier this month, Russia launched an unmanned spacecraft, lost it for a few days and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed failure of a satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies called “a basic fuel miscalculation that made the craft too heavy to reach its required height.”
And we’re going to entrust our astronauts and space hardware to these guys?
As to private-sector alternatives, Armstrong, Cernan and Lovell note that “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty.” Indeed, there are limitations to what private firms can do: One of NASA’s main private-sector partners is SpaceX, which is developing the Falcon 9 rocket, which is expected to carry 22,000 pounds into space. By contrast, the Shuttle can deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit. Moreover, SpaceX rockets have failed several times since 2006.
In short, the alternatives leave much to be desired.
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