Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Happy to be Stuck with You

With politicians scrambling to come up with answers to the "gap" between shuttle and Orion, it's worth asking whether the US has taken a critical look at what its near-term goals in manned spaceflight are. Yes, the moon is the goal, but a 2020 landing is a long-term goal. What are our goals for the period before the first lunar missions take place?

Under the Vision for Space Exploration, the US had originally committed to supporting the International Space Station until the year 2017. This goal had appeared to be on-track until several factors popped up. First, the Orion capsule, billed as successor to the shuttle, has been delayed from "no later than 2014" to going operational in 2015 or later. Second, the COTS spacecraft, which were to partially compensate for losing the shuttle's ability to bring mass back to earth from the station, have not panned out according to the original schedule. Dragon was delayed and RocketPlane-Kistler's award was taken away, with Orbital Sciences filling their slot. Lastly, Russia invaded Georgia and gave Congress every reason to terminate the purchase of Soyuz spacecraft.

There has been a groundswell of support for extending the shuttle program in the wake of the Georgian invasion. Unfortunately, more shuttle missions will not solve the fundamental problem that ISS faces. The shuttle is great for hauling cargo up and down from the station. But the shuttle cannot stay on-orbit for six months to bring a crew home during an emergency. Without an American spacecraft docked to ISS for six months at a time, there's no way that America can go it alone without Soyuz.

Besides the reliance on Soyuz, there are myriad other ways in which ISS cannot survive unless the US and Russia cooperate. The various modules are too interconnected, and neither country can operate their contributions to the station without the other country playing along. It's conceivable that Russia could afford to build Soyuz without American money, by selling the American slots to space tourists. But a Russian-led ISS would still require use of American space modules.

America and Russia are left in a situation where it's unlikely that either will abandon the ISS, even though both nations are mired in growing mistrust. If I had to make a bet, I would say that the US and Russia will learn to grin and bear it, operating ISS jointly until 2017. When Congress looks rationally at its options, it will realize that it will have to begrudgingly buy more Soyuz if it still wants to participate in ISS.