Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, September 18, 2008

ISS Solutions, Made in China

As multiple commentators have noted, there are no good options left in dealing with US access to the International Space Station. The Shuttle doesn’t meet mission requirements for crew return, but buying Soyuz capsules will be rewarding Russia in spite of its invasion of Georgia and proliferation of nuclear technology to Iran. When trapped between a rock and a hard place, it’s time to ask ourselves, “What would Richard Nixon do?”

Of course, I’m alluding to Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972. When the Russians are giving you a hard time, turn to China and do business with them instead. The analogy could also work for the space program. If NASA seriously looked at an alliance with China and used Shenzhou spacecraft to reach the International Space Station, it might get the Russians to make NASA a bargain. It probably wouldn’t change Russian attitudes on Iran or Georgia, but it might make the Russians cut their prices on Soyuz flights, or acquiesce to other American demands on ISS issues.

Could Shenzhou visit the space station? There are a lot of challenges that need resolution before such a flight could be attempted. Shenzhou has only made two manned flights, and probably would make NASA extremely cautious about certifying the spacecraft’s safety. The technical means for Shenzhou to dock with the station would have to be developed. It’s also unclear to me if the CZ-2F booster has enough performance to launch a Shenzhou into the station’s 51-degree orbit. Serious doubts should remain about China’s ability to produce and launch two Shenzhou per year, given the 2-3 year gaps between manned Shenzhou missions. There’s also a host of tech transfer issues that have to be dealt with. In short, I don’t view Shenzhou as a realistic option for American astronauts at present.

At the same time, Congress should direct NASA to begin talks with the Chinese manned spaceflight program and perform studies on what it would take to make the Shenzhou option realistic. If nothing else, the Russians need to know that Soyuz isn’t the only game in town.