Space pro­gram per­ils feared with Rus­sia rift

NASA chief tries to as­sure law­mak­ers

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

De­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­la­tions with Rus­sia have not harmed Amer­i­cans’ abil­ity to get as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, NASA Ad­min­is­tra­tor Charles Bolden told Congress on Thurs­day, try­ing to re­as­sure law­mak­ers who fear the diplo­matic rift could de­rail the U.S. space pro­gram.

Mr. Bolden made the com­ments two days af­ter Rus­sian Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Ro­gozin said U.S. as­tro­nauts soon will need a tram­po­line to get to the space sta­tion. His mock­ing un­der­scored how much NASA, which re­cently re­tired its space shut­tle pro­gram, re­lies on the rock­etry ca­pac­ity of its Cold War foe.

Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts have been hitch­ing rides on Rus­sian craft to the tune of about $70 mil­lion per seat.

The “tram­po­line” com­ment notwith­stand­ing, Mr. Bolden said ties be­tween the two coun­tries’ space pro­grams re­main strong.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has slapped leading Rus­sian of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing some with ties to the space pro­gram, with eco­nomic sanc­tions in re­sponse to Moscow’s ag­gres­sion in Ukraine.

Some U.S. law­mak­ers be­lieve the space truce is in dan­ger, es­pe­cially if Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin continues his pos­ture to­ward Ukraine and forces the U.S. and its al­lies to pur­sue fur­ther sanc­tions.

“So we’re all OK, do­ing ‘Kum­baya’ now, but you know, it’s a del­i­cate sit­u­a­tion in­ter­na­tion­ally. We’re go­ing to be es­ca­lat­ing our sanc­tions. And I’m not talk­ing about your cur­rent re­la­tions. I’m talk­ing about our fu­ture re­la­tions,” Sen. Bar­bara A. Mikul­ski, Mary­land Demo­crat and chair­woman of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, told Mr. Bolden.

In­deed, Mr. Bolden’s own words demon­strate just how much power Moscow has over Amer­i­can space ex­plo­ration. U.S. as­tro­nauts at the space sta­tion have just one way to get home: Rus­sian Soyuz space­craft.

“To­day, we are de­pen­dent on the Rus­sians. If some­thing were to hap­pen that caused us to have to evac­u­ate the [space sta­tion], the plan, the con­tin­gency plan, is we have two ve­hi­cles that are there, two Soyuz space­craft. We would get the crews into the Soyuz space­craft and we would come home,” Mr. Bolden said. “That is the es­cape right now. That is the emer­gency re­turn ve­hi­cle. It is the nom­i­nal re­turn ve­hi­cle. It is the only ve­hi­cle we have.”

Since the end of the space shut­tle pro­gram in 2011, NASA has be­come en­tirely re­liant on Rus­sia to trans­port its people to and from or­bit. By 2017, Mr. Bolden said, pri­vate com­pa­nies con­tracted with NASA will be able to ferry as­tro­nauts to the sta­tion and re­turn them to Earth.

Un­til then, Rus­sia’s Roscos­mos space agency is the only op­tion.

Mr. Bolden said NASA has paid in ad­vance all costs as­so­ci­ated with trans­port­ing as­tro­nauts on Rus­sian craft through 2017. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to send­ing Moscow hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for the next three years also has led to crit­i­cism.

“For be­ing ex-com­mu­nists, they’ve turned into won­der­ful free-mar­ket people and know the value of a good mo­nop­oly and have charged us ac­cord­ingly,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Repub­li­can and out­spo­ken critic of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s space pol­icy.

Space pro­grams his­tor­i­cally have been im­mune to pol­i­tics, though a col­lapse of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions could lead to prob­lems.

“Space co­op­er­a­tion has been in re­cent years one of the few pos­i­tive as­pects of the U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tion­ship. It’s been one of the few feel-good news sto­ries. There re­ally hasn’t been in­tru­sion of po­lit­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions at the work­ing level in re­cent years,” said Scott Pace, di­rec­tor of the Space Pol­icy In­sti­tute at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity and a for­mer as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor at NASA.

“On the other hand,” he said, “you can’t sep­a­rate space co­op­er­a­tion from the po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships. Space co­op­er­a­tion doesn’t hap­pen in spite of po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships. It hap­pens in part be­cause of po­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ships. … The space co­op­er­a­tion will be one of the last ar­eas of co­op­er­a­tion to go” if U.S.-Rus­sian re­la­tions col­lapse.

The U.S. might have avoided po­ten­tial com­pli­ca­tions by con­tin­u­ing the space shut­tle pro­gram, which ended with the July 21, 2011, land­ing of At­lantis.

“The an­swer was to keep the shut­tle go­ing. We had the most ad­vanced space ve­hi­cle ever de­vel­oped. … We sud­denly gave up that ca­pa­bil­ity,” said Ge­orge W.S. Abbey, a se­nior fel­low in space pol­icy at the James A. Baker III In­sti­tute for Pub­lic Pol­icy and a for­mer di­rec­tor of NASA’s John­son Space Cen­ter who worked on the Apollo pro­gram in the 1960s. “The shut­tle was a ca­pa­bil­ity we should have main­tained un­til it could be re­placed by some­thing bet­ter.”

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