Lottery Post Journal

U.S. to rely on Russia for manned spaceflight

By John Schwartz
Sunday, October 5, 2008

STAR CITY, Russia—This place was once no place, a secret military base northeast of Moscow that did not show up on maps. The Soviet Union trained its astronauts here to fight on the highest battlefield of the Cold War: space.

Yet these days, Star City is the place for America's hard-won orbital partnership with Russia, where astronauts train to fly aboard Soyuz spacecraft. And in two years, according to the Bush administration's plans, Star City will be the only place for sending astronauts from any nation to the International Space Station.

The gap is coming: Between 2010, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shuts down the space shuttle program, and 2015, when the next generation of U.S. spacecraft is scheduled to arrive, NASA expects to have no human flight capacity and will depend on Russia to get to the $100 billion station, buying seats on Soyuz craft as space tourists do.

As NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, the administration's plan to retire the shuttle and work on a return to the Moon has thrust the U.S. space program squarely into national politics and geopolitical controversy.

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, the presidential candidates, denounced the gap and touted their commitment to the space program while on trips to Florida, where thousands of workers will lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends. And antagonism between the United States and Russia, over Georgia and other issues, is clouding the future of a 15-year partnership between the American and Russian space programs, precisely when NASA will be more reliant on Russia than ever before.

Even the administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin, has called the situation "unseemly in the extreme." In an e-mail message he sent to his top advisers in August, Griffin wrote that "events have unfolded in a way that makes it clear how unwise it was for the U.S. to adopt a policy of deliberate dependence on another power for access to ISS."

Griffin is worried enough that he ordered his staff to explore the costs of flying the aging shuttles past 2010. He decided to evaluate that option, he said in an interview last month, "about five minutes after the Russians invaded Georgia, because I could see this coming." But he warns that any extension would be costly and could further delay NASA's return to the moon and threaten America's role as the leading space power.

China last month made what it calls a "major breakthrough" in its space program with the third successful launch of its Shenzhou VII spacecraft and a first-ever spacewalk by one of its astronauts. The Chinese government has said it hopes to establish a space station and eventually make a moon landing. The U.S. plans to return to the moon by 2020 at the earliest, and some observers believe China may get there first.

The interruption in American-controlled access to space rankles some in Washington, including Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida and a leading proponent of the space program. In an interview, he said that it was "inexcusable" for the country's space program to be put in a position of dependence on such a politically volatile partner.

"We've got a Russian prime minister who believes he's Czar," he said of Vladimir Putin after Russia's invasion of Georgia.

The United States has had periods in which its astronauts could not reach space: between the end of the Apollo program and the beginning of shuttle flights in 1981, and after the loss of the shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. But the coming interval could become the longest of all if the rollout of NASA's new rockets is significantly delayed.

Even though the outlines of the gap have been known since soon after Griffin began running the agency in 2005, Commander Scott Kelly of the U.S. Navy, an astronaut who has made two trips to orbit, warned in April that the prospect of a United States that cannot send humans into space on its own rockets will come as a shock.

"A large part of the American public is going to be surprised," he predicted, and people will ask in outrage, "Who let that happen?"

While critics decry the pause in American flights, it is no accident. The Bush administration chose to give up the nation's access to space for five years as part of its plans to stop using the aging and risky shuttle fleet, and to move to the next phase of space travel. The administration decided to retire the shuttles after the loss of the Columbia and its crew of seven astronauts in 2003, and in January 2004 announced a sweeping "vision for space exploration" program, Constellation, that would shift NASA's focus to the Moon and Mars.

The new launch program is built around Ares rockets and Orion capsules that can take America beyond the shuttle's limitations as a low-Earth-orbit vehicle. The Constellation craft are designed to return astronauts to the Moon and even to explore near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

To get from one program to the other without hiking NASA's $17 billion annual budget, the administration decided to wind down the shuttle program and ramp up Constellation, without trying to run two programs at once. The decision has never been portrayed as anything but difficult — even last year, Griffin said in an interview, "I hate the gap." But in recent months, criticism has flared. Both presidential candidates, for example, pledge to keep America flying.

"As president, I will act to ensure our astronauts will continue to explore space, and not just by hitching a ride with someone else," McCain, the Republican nominee, said in a statement earlier this year. [Edit: That's the kind of statement that we look for in a President: telling us exactly what he's going to do.]

His Democratic opponent, Obama, criticizes what he has called the "poor planning and inadequate funding" that have led to the situation. [Edit: That's the kind of statement that we all hate—casting blame everywhere except himself, and saying nothing about what he will do.]

Both candidates say NASA should explore the continuation of the shuttle program for at least one additional flight, and to try to speed up Constellation development with additional funding.

More money, however, might be hard to come by in a time of war and record economic bailouts. And any new funding would come too late to greatly shorten the development time for the new craft.

"It is essentially unfixable now," Griffin said.

His growing frustration was clear in the e-mail message he distributed to his closest aides on Aug. 18 — including the order to study the additional flights.

"In a rational world, we would have been allowed to pick a shuttle retirement date to be consistent with Ares/Orion availability," he wrote. Within the administration, he wrote, "retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program-management decision."

After the e-mail was published by The Orlando Sentinel newspaper, Griffin issued a statement saying that his message failed "to provide the contextual framework for my remarks, and my support for the administration's policies."

At the time of Griffin's e-mail, legislation vital to NASA's gap plans — permission by Congress to buy Soyuz seats past 2011 — was stalled by the furor over the Russian conflict with Georgia. That problem was resolved last month when Congress quietly granted approval, but the broader issues presented by the gap remain.

And Griffin's concerns do not end with Russia and Washington politics. He has repeatedly warned that China's space program is moving forward rapidly. In testimony to the Senate last year, Griffin said it was likely that "China will be able to put people on the Moon before we will be able to get back."

That prospect is a concern for Representative Tom Feeney, Republican of Florida.

"The U.S. cannot sit back and allow space capabilities to empower countries that may not have our best interests at heart," he said.

Feeney said that not all of his colleagues shared his sense of urgency. A fellow congressman recently suggested naming the first new lunar base after Neil Armstrong. Feeney recalled responding, "What makes you think the Chinese are going to give us permission to name their base after one of our astronauts?"

The growing tension with Russia complicates a longstanding international alliance in space that helped to defuse the Cold War, especially among those who had served at the front lines.

William Shepherd, the first commander of the station and a former fighter pilot, recalled that when he and his crewmate Yuri Gidzenko first orbited the Earth, the two Cold Warriors pointed to air bases where, years before, they waited on alert should armed conflict begin.

"I realized at that moment we were not an American and a Russian anymore," he said. "It was about something that transcended that whole canvas."

The partnership began in the 1990s, as the Soviet Union and its economy collapsed, its space program was adrift, and the Russian knowledge about carrying people into orbit — or bombs to distant destinations — was at risk of falling into the hands of hostile nations. In paying to help keep the Russian space program going, the logic went, the United States would stem proliferation. By the mid-1990s Americans began serving aboard the Mir space station as the United States and Russia planned what would become the International Space Station.

The early days were marked by wariness. Mark Bowman, an early contract employee in Russia who is now back in Moscow as a NASA representative, said Korolev, where mission control is, "was a closed city" when he first arrived in 1993. "Foreigners were not allowed here." These days, NASA has teams of workers who live year-round in Russia and dozens of others who come through for training runs, launches and landings.

"We've built an incredible relationship over the years," said Kelly, the navy commander. "I'd venture to say the people who work at NASA know the Russians better than any other branch of our government."

Susan Eisenhower, an expert on U.S.-Russian relations and the space programs, said the Russians proved after the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003 that they would hold up their end of the bargain by continuing to take Americans to the station.

"When we had no choice because of the shuttle failure, the Russians could have blackmailed us around this tragedy and did not do so," she said. "They came through in a way that demonstrated the fruits of our cooperation."

Vitaly Davidov, the deputy director of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said in an interview at mission control that Russia would honor its commitments to fly crews to the station.

"It's absolutely sure the political leadership of all countries participating in the space station are interested in carrying out this project," he said. A Kremlin official agreed. "Russia has had, and continues to enjoy, a very positive relationship with America's space program. We will stand by our obligations and we firmly expect to continue our mutual cooperation."

That does not mean that the going will be easy. The United States and Russia are at loggerheads over many trade and political issues, and increasingly, Russia has been tightening control over energy companies like Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, and using them to bully their international rivals.

But Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonprofit organization in Washington that studies nuclear proliferation, said that while the Russian space monopoly created risk, "there is a longstanding etiquette: You do not mess with the safety of humans in space."

So, he said, "I don't think this is going to get very ugly if the gap problem continues. But it will become expensive."


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