Letter: America Needs Assured Access to Station

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The space shuttle program is ending after completion of the international space station. The United States will surely miss the capabilities of these unique vehicles and our superb astronauts to transport high value payloads to low Earth orbit (LEO) and deploy, service, and repair them. The shuttle has provided America with assured crew access to LEO for over 30 years. After it is gone, there will be no defined U.S. human spaceflight program for the first time since the announcement of project Mercury in 1958.

The United States is unilaterally abandoning its world leadership in human spaceflight to other countries and for many years to come must depend on Russia to transport American astronauts to the space station, the national laboratory for which U.S. taxpayers paid over $100 billion. It is especially ironic that, after the United States contributed the largest share of space station costs, and transported the bulk of the station into LEO, Russia is now charging the United States a premium of $63 million per seat, far exceeding prices charged to space tourists.

Long-term dependence on Russia entails risks and is potentially dangerous: Technical issues could ground the Soyuz; Russia could raise prices to unaffordable levels or withhold U.S. access during world political crises; the space station could be damaged and need major repairs. Our inability to access, repair and reboost the station would result in its loss, like Skylab in 1979, the last time the United States had no human spaceflight capability. Large space station remnants could then crash onto world population centers.

The deep space Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) could provide assured U.S. crew access to the space station, but NASA proposes to delay it to match the schedule of its launcher, the Space Launch System. NASA stated it cannot field the Space Launch System by the 2016 congressional deadline, but never stated when it could be ready.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Congress that MPCV/Space Launch System would not be needed this decade. Such a long gap would be devastating to U.S. human spaceflight expertise and industrial capability, and our astronauts.

The United States should restore human spaceflight capability as rapidly as possible: Accelerate the MPCV program and use the Delta 4 Heavy as its interim launcher. The Delta 4 Heavy is a reliable, flight-proven U.S. rocket that can deliver the MPCV to the space station, with margin. This option would provide additional time to develop commercial transports and the Space Launch System, opportunities for U.S. astronauts to fly LEO missions years before deep space flights on the Space Launch System, and continuity in the U.S. human spaceflight program.

 

The name of the letter writer, a Boeing engineer, has been withheld by request.