‘s invasion of neighboring , the most aggressive in a pattern of actions by a nation that appears bent on restoring Soviet-era regional hegemony, is bound to have repercussions in a number of international arenas, and human spaceflight is not immune.
The international space station depends on Russian hardware today and will to an even greater extent in the near future. Between the space shuttle’s scheduled 2010 retirement and the delayed arrival of a replacement system some five years later, Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be the only means of transporting crews to and from the orbital outpost. These same Russian spacecraft also serve as the only means of escape for crews aboard the space station for long-duration visits.
Now, however, NASA’s ability to acquire these vehicles after 2011 could be in jeopardy. To buy space station-related goods and services from , NASA needs a waiver from a law that bars such transactions unless the White House can certify that Russian companies are not selling weapons technology to , and . The current waiver to the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSN A) expires at the end of 2011 and NASA has asked Congress to grant an extension before the end of this year so it can negotiate a new deal that gives sufficient time to build the capsules needed to keep the station occupied beyond then.
The chances that Congress would agree were uncertain even before Russian tanks rolled into ; now they are far more so. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel Aug. 12 as saying it could be “almost impossible” to get the waiver passed in the wake of Russia’s incursion, which has come under increasing criticism from U.S. President George W. Bush.
Sen. Nelson is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA and he also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – as such he has been expected to play a key role in introducing and winning passage of the waiver legislation. Although he has made no secret of his desire to keep the space shuttle flying beyond 2010, Sen. Nelson has in recent months grudgingly come around to the idea that NASA needs to retire the aging orbiter fleet before it can begin full- scale development of the replacement system – the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher.
But if Sen. Nelson was looking for a reason to revert to his earlier position, he certainly has it in ‘s assault on a West-leaning democracy. He would not be alone: Others on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have long warned that it’s a mistake to depend on to launch astronauts to the space station; ‘s behavior has only strengthened these arguments.
The space station is not the only space program that could be affected by a chill in relations with : United Launch Alliance‘s Atlas 5 rocket, one of two vehicles used to launch the most critical civil and national security payloads, is powered by a Russian-built main engine, the RD-180. Although United Launch Alliance has a stockpile of RD-180s, a supply cutoff eventually could reduce by half the launch options at the government’s disposal, barring the emergence of another vehicle of comparable capability.
‘s aggression merits a response, to be sure, but those who would use the space station program as a means of punishment need to bear in mind the consequences: a facility in which NASA and its international partners have invested well over $100 billion idling uselessly in low Earth orbit. Simply put, there is no alternative to Soyuz under current plans, and it is not realistic to assume one will materialize in the next seven years.
Keeping the space shuttle flying beyond 2010 would only be a partial solution, because without Soyuz there is no way to keep the space station occupied full time. Moreover, the longer the shuttle flies, the longer it will take to field Orion and Ares unless NASA’s budget is increased to a level that would accommodate orbiter operations during the peak development years for the replacement vehicles.
John Glenn, the retired astronaut and senator, argued recently that NASA should receive an annual budget increase of $3 billion so it can carry both programs- it’s a fine idea but it isn’t in the cards right now.
It can be argued that there is no crisis here – that INKSNA relief doesn’t absolutely have to happen this year because NASA has more than three years before the current waiver expires, and it shouldn’t take that long to build a Soyuz. But sooner or later, NASA is going to need that waiver and nothing that has happened in the past few weeks is going to make that already difficult task any easier.