Space program perils feared with Russia rift
NASA chief tries to assure lawmakers
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.”