Putin and the Keys to Low Earth Orbit

Space fans, the situation in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine may have immediate and ironically salutary implications for NASA and the ongoing push to develop a commercial human-to-LEO (low earth orbit) capability. “How so,” you ask?

While Putin’s military incursion does not affect directly the Kazakhstan spaceport, nor the operation of the Soyuz taxis the US has been renting to get our astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS), U.S. access to the Soyuz and Kazak launch assets may be severely curtailed or blocked altogether in the coming weeks. Everything depends on the stance our diplomats take regarding the invasion and how far Putin decides to go in retaliation. Yes, Kazakhstan is an independent nation with good U.S. relations, but it is Russia that makes the rockets, delivers the rockets, launches and pilots them. Russia could decide that seats on the Soyuz are no longer available to the US.

Right now, Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator and the agency’s human spaceflight/ISS management team must be sweating bullets. The ISS without a U.S. presence is suddenly a very plausible scenario. In the post shuttle era (PSE) U.S-based human spaceflight capability is two years away – at best – given the current development calendar and levels of public funding. SpaceX is planning to conduct abort tests of its DragonRider crewed vehicle late this year, with the outside possibility of a crewed flight using company (not NASA) test pilots in 2015. Sierra Nevada continues to develop its Dream Chaser space plane with human-rating test flights on the books for 2016.

Those dates are too far off. If the launch agreement with Russia goes south completely, perhaps we could decide that the current ISS crew should hold down the zero-G fort until we get the commercial crew program up and running 3 years from now. No one has ever lived in zero-G for such a lengthy period of time, for good reason; the impact of long-duration spaceflight on human physiology is fierce: massive reductions in bone density and muscle mass, reductions in visual acuity, and long-term exposure to radiation. One could argue that it is unethical to ask U.S. astronauts and indirectly their families to endure such risk. Maybe we could ask a nation that continues to maintain solid working relations with Russia (the likely candidates being Canada and Japan, each with hardware on orbit at ISS) to supply caretaker astronauts lofted to ISS on the Soyuz. And if we needed a push to begin conversations in earnest with China about cooperative space ventures, here you go.

All of those options are suboptimal. What makes the most sense? Accelerate funding for the commercial human spaceflight program. For years now, the Obama Administration and Congress have refused to fully fund NASA’s budget requests for the commercial cargo and human spaceflight initiatives. The end result? Greatly lengthened development calendars and pushed-back milestones for the commercial crew program. The consequence: our investment in ISS now hangs in the balance of a diplomatic crisis far beyond NASA’s control. (And the inert shell of Shuttle Atlantis sits in a museum just 6 miles away from its once-upon-a-time launchpad.)

Could accelerated funding shave off time getting to a U.S. human spaceflight launch option? Yes. While engineering lead times are not all that flexible, SpaceX has shown its ability to successfully collapse project timelines and milestones in the development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon cargo capsule. And Elon Musk seems eager to take on and conquer challenges. In any event, NASA is expected to downselect to two competing human spaceflight solutions by year’s end. Given current circumstances, the downselect should happen as soon as possible and Charlie Bolden should go to OMB and the Hill next week to ask for the needed bolus of funding to push our homegrown space launch capabilities ahead at high speed.

Let’s see what happens next…..

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