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Friday, August 15, 2008

The War in Georgia and the Space Program

While the news media is transfixed by the invasion of the oil-producing former Soviet republic of Georgia by its former masters, not too many of them have given much thought to the effect of Russia's actions on the space program.

This has been a big issue for me since Space Adventures started sending tourists to the International Space Station. I questioned my fellow space advocates' embrace of this activity, especially since Russia was not all that reliable. But at the time I was grousing, it was 2000-2001, and my Cold Warrior opinions were not welcome. Well, here's a "See, I Told You So" 7 years later. Now we have Russia invading one of its former client states/satellites.

This invasion makes sense if one has read a bit of European/Russian history as well as The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington. In short, we're now facing a world situation where large regional powers are trying to reassert and maintain their power over smaller states in their neighborhood. Russia had a "cordon sanitaire" or set of buffer states between itself and the West between 1919 and 1991. Making former satellites like Ukraine, Poland, or Georgia members of NATO was a direct threat to Russina security, as they saw it. That might not be logical, but it is prudent. Russia wants its buffer back.

So why does this affect the space program? Because Russia has been a major partner in building and staffing the International Space Station and, once the Space Shuttle retires in two years, they will be our only transportation provider to ISS. Will Russia refuse the U.S. access to ISS once Shuttle retires? Will they jack up the price of Soyuz flights to ISS the way they held Europe hostage for higher oil prices? Will ISS become the site of the first "space war?" Those are the types of questions and possibilities Bush and the next president must consider if Russia is going to continue to be an aggressor.

On the U.S. side, we have some other questions to consider. For instance:

Funding all of the above would probably cost $2-3 billion per year at best. More likely, we'd be looking at $4-5 billion in new funding on top of the current $17 billion NASA budget, assuming the current budget gets past the threat of a continuing resolution in Congress. This, of course, overlooks the operational consequences of extending the Shuttle, which Mike Griffin has addressed again and again:

  • As long as we continue to fly Shuttle, the vehicle processing and launch infrastructure at Kennedy Space Center must remain as is. The longer we keep Shuttle in place, the longer it will take for our launch systems (the Vehicle Assembly Building, the launch pads, etc.) to be ready to launch Ares I and Ares V. That might not delay the development time for Ares I, but it will delay our ability to fly it.
  • We can increase funding for COTS--and I'm for that anyway--but there will be some resistance, given that the only serious competitor in the field (SpaceX) has failed three times to get something into orbit.
  • We can increase funding for Ares and Orion. However, Griffin, Jeff Hanley, and others have pointed out that even if you threw a couple billion dollars at Constellation, money isn't the issue. Roger Bilstein's Stages to Saturn provides an excellent narrative that explains why building new rocket systems is a long, arduous, linear process. That means, even if you threw ten or a hundred billion dollars at a new engine system (say, J-2X), it would still take seven years to build it. You have to build things, test them, have them blow up, try something new, and then retest.
  • We could stay on plan: retire the Shuttle, build Ares, accept the five-year gap, suck it up, and pay the Russians whatever they want to charge to get access to the ISS.
  • We could shift gears, change direction, try some other rocket design--start from scratch with DIRECT or make EELV human-rated and put an Orion capsule on top of it--and hope that either of these choices shrinks the anticipated five-year gap in America's ability to launch human beings into space. Keep in mind that the last time America had a gap in human spaceflight capabilities were the years 1975 to 1981. Those weren't particularly great years (think: Carter), but civilization did not collapse.
  • We could quit. Let the Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Europeans, and Indians inherit the spaceways.

The best question someone could ask the two major candidates would be: "America's space program is a waste of time and resources. Why should be bother spending money on space at all? Why don't we just close it down?" Okay, it's not the best question someone could ask, but it would bring the space issue into focus. Do we really want it shut down completely? Does greatness (okay, pride and power--the things McCain talked about in his space statement--but also future technologies and resources) no longer matter to America? Are we going to give up being the single richest, most powerful nation in history just because it's too much work or too expensive? Ye flippin' gods.

Regardless of what happens in Georgia, the media needs to give more thought to the space aspects of a new Cold War with Russia, because it is nearly here, and our space program looked a lot different the last time we had a Cold War. The last time we had one, we went to the Moon.

1 comment:

Veronique Koken said...

Excellent piece, as usual you write with such aplomb! Great closing sentence too.
I am curious as well to see what will become of our space program... It will inevitably be victim to politics, but how bad will the blow be--that is the question.