Our Space Policy Chickens Have Come Home To Roost

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle last month, the U.S. and its international partners are now entirely reliant on non-U.S. providers for transportation to and from the International Space Station — Russian Progress tankers and others for cargo and Russian Soyuz capsules for crew transfer and lifeboat services. There is currently no U.S. backup or capability.

It turns out that this is a problem, because the venerable Russian rocket that had successfully delivered 43 consecutive Progress missions failed today, with the cargo destined for the ISS instead scattered across the forests of Siberia. Concern is compounded by the fact that Roscosmos, the Russian company responsible for the launch, had also put a communications satellite in the wrong orbit just last Friday, meaning that they had two failures in less than a week.

But wait! It gets better.  There was supposed to be a crew delivery to the station next month, and it was planned to go up on…you guessed it…the same type of rocket that failed today. If crew had been on today’s flight, they might have survived (the Soyuz has an abort system), but there’s a good chance they would have been injured — cosmonauts have been injured severely enough to end their careers in previous similar aborts.  So now plans for crew replacement this fall are on hold.

How did we get into this mess? Over seven years ago, the Bush administration decided to retire the Shuttle, and develop a new system called the Crew Exploration Vehicle that would be NASA’s new means of getting its astronauts into space. Most assumed that it would go up on an existing commercial rocket, such as the Lockheed-Martin Atlas or Boeing Delta, and that it would be ready to fly by 2014, leaving only a brief “gap” between the time the Shuttle ended and the new vehicle was available. Unfortunately, incoming NASA Administrator Mike Griffin had different ideas, and set the agency on an unaffordable path to developing a new rocket in addition to the new capsule, and the program ballooned out of control, to  the point at which, by the time the Obama administration came in, it was way over budget and behind schedule, with little hope of flying before the end of this decade. Thus, with the end of the Shuttle, the Russians had been essentially granted an indefinite monopoly, and unsurprisingly took advantage of it by jacking up the price of a ride to the ISS from $50M to $63M a seat. Ironically, in light of today’s event, they had even gloated recently about the new “era of reliability” with their Soyuz. They had also been threatening to withhold permission for SpaceX to dock its Dragon capsule (in a test currently scheduled for late this fall) to the ISS, on the pretext that it is a safety hazard to the facility in which they are one of the international partners. It is only coincidence, of course, that such an act would help maintain their monopoly.

Fortunately, amidst all the billions he was wasting on the NASA-dedicated rocket, Griffin did throw a pittance of funding at developing competitive commercial cargo services for the station, and that turned out to be all that was needed. Both contractors for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems contracts, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, are planning to do test flights to the ISS in the next few months.  In the case of the former, its system could carry crew within two or three years, as could Boeing’s and others’ crew carriers on commercial rockets, given sufficient funding (and sufficient isn’t a lot, in the context of how much NASA is still being forced by Congress to spend on the unneeded Senate Launch System). Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, an opponent of the current pork-obsessed Congressional dictates, has seized on the event, and issued a press release this afternoon:

“I am calling on General Bolden, the NASA Administrator, to propose an emergency transfer of funding from unobligated balances in other programs, including the Space Launch System, to NASA’s commercial crew initiative. Funding should be used to speed up the efforts of the four current industry partners to develop their systems and potentially expand the recent awards to include the best applicants for launch vehicle development.

“NASA could potentially transfer several hundred million dollars from this long term development concept, since the SLS project has not even started, to the more urgently needed systems that can launch astronauts to ISS, reliably and affordably. This transfer will boost the development of American controlled technology and greatly reduce our dependence on the Russians.”

It will be interesting to see how those in Congress who have been demanding that NASA build a heavy-lift vehicle for which there is no mission with insufficient funding, while starving Commercial Crew, will respond. Judging by history, it will be with non sequiturs, and bashing of American enterprise by supposed conservatives and Republicans, such as Senator Shelby of Alabama (the senator from NASA Marshall Space Flight Center), Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas (the senator from Johnson Space Center), and Orrin Hatch of Utah (the senator from ATK, manufacturer of the giant Shuttle solid boosters that the Congress insists be used in the new launcher), or Science Committee Chairman (from Johnson Space Center) Ralph Hall. But given the shock to the system today, Congressman Rohrabacher’s common-sense call may find traction with the majority of Congress that doesn’t rely on home-district and home-state contractors for campaign donations, and who are genuinely concerned about our continuing dependence on a country that is in many ways an adversary (for instance, whenever we give the Russians a new launch contract, Congress has to waive their requirements under the Iran/Syria/North-Korea Non-Proliferation Act, because they continue to aid the Iranians in the development of their nukes and missiles). Of course, the ultimate lesson is that we need competition, and shouldn’t rely on a single provider for critical capabilities, regardless of national origin.

But regardless of the immediate outcome, as a result of their own failures, Russia is no longer in the catbird seat for this business, and SpaceX appears to be ascendant, as long as they can maintain their own record of success with the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. In honor of their comeuppance, I wrote a little haiku today:

Eating Russian Crow

This was the era
Of reliability
Well so much for that.