Chair Force Engineer

Monday, March 05, 2007

Space Station Tedium

I promise that I will post the last chapter on TeamVision this week. But Dwayne Day's article Death Throes and Grand Delusions in The Space Review really caught my interest.

As a grammar school student in the late 80's and early 90's, I remember my Weekly Reader saying that Space Station Freedom was going to cure cancer and lead to all sorts of neat breakthroughs on the bleeding edge of science. That vision was the future we wanted to believe in.

The future that we actually got was the International Space Station, which is much more complex than good ol' Mir, but seems like it isn't much of an advancement as far as science is concerned. It takes a cosmonaut with the credentials of Pavel Vinogradov to blow the lid off our space station fantasies:
...We are now flying with zero efficiency. We’re carrying out 30-year-old experiments. Even if they are very important, do they move us forward? I have no idea. The Americans are doing experiments that we did back in the Salyut and Mir days. Why? Can’t they find the results [in Russia]? Or don’t they want to? This is amazing. I always thought we have to fly in the interests of science, to produce results needed by many people, and all we’re doing is keeping the station in working order. 62% of our time goes to servicing on-board systems, 15% to personal needs and only 23% to science…

This is an amazing revelation. So we're paying $7B per year and putting the lives of our astronauts in jeopardy just so we can rehash Russia's accomplishments on Mir? Absolutely ridiculous!

As far as Dr. Day's central argument (the decay of the once-great Energia company) goes, it's hard to not see the Russian manned space program in its dying convulsions, a victim of a poor grasp for capitalism. Energia should have seized upon the demand for space tourism and began launching Soyuz missions explicitly for tourist purposes. The company could have even built a duplicate of the Mir core module to give the tourists a destination where they could play. While the startup costs of such a project would be startling, there are plenty of American mega-millionaires (Dennis Tito, Anousheh Ansari, etc) who have a demonstrated willingness to pay the high prices involved. Perhaps if commercial money was supporting a space station like the Mir clone I propose, there might be actual research into life-saving drugs going on aboard that station.

Energia had a good idea regarding the Kliper spacecraft (at least until it sprouted wings and landing gear,) but it was blocked by the extreme conservatism of Roscosmos. Energia will probably be doomed by the delusional visions of the Putin-crony who was recently put in charge of the company.

We face a future where we have a space station that could never survive as a commercial venture, but it's being propped up by the govenments of the spacefaring nations. SpaceX or RpK may build an ISS-compatible capsule and fly it in the 2010-2012 timeframe. NASA is still working on Orion, which will meet all of the ISS needs, but it may not be ready until 2015 or later. For Energia and the Russian manned spaceflight program, they will need to make bold but calculated moves to avoid being left in the dust. By luring in European government dollars and relying on the tried and true Zenit rocket (although last month's SeaLaunch failure should give us pause,) the Russians could design a reusable, six-man semi-ballistic capsule. That evolutionary step beyond the 40-year-old Soyuz is perhaps the only thing that can jump-start a stagnant space program that used to be the most elite space program in the world.