Russia’s status as a space power will end with the start of NASA’s commercial crew
Barring any more unforeseen developments, it looks like NASA’s commercial crew will become operational by as early as the summer of 2020, according to a recent report of NASA’s Inspector General. The event will, among other things, signal the beginning of the end of Russia as a space power.
SpaceX’s Crewed Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner were supposed to start taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017. Technical glitches and other problems have delayed the commercial crew program by three years.
Moreover, the delays may cause a temporary reduction in the crew size of the ISS with an accompanying slowdown in the orbiting laboratory’s science research and development. NASA’s OIG is recommending that NASA pay for more flights on the Soyuz space capsule to cover the gap. The space agency will have to use money allocated to other priorities unless Congress can be prevailed upon to cover the cost.
The good news is that shortly, Americans will fly on American spacecraft from American soil for the first time since 2011. The far-too-long dependence on Russia for Americans and others to fly into space will at last come to an end. As it turns out, that development will transpire none too soon.
Two incidents occurring a year ago illustrate a growing quality control problem in the Russian space program. One, Soyuz, which had been docked with the International Space Station after delivering a new crew, was discovered to have had a leak. The cause seemed to be a hole that had been drilled in the spacecraft’s bulkhead. Another Soyuz launch was aborted because of a faulty sensor.
The Soyuz has been successfully flying since the 1960s and has a reputation for reliability. But if slipshod quality control and corruption are starting to compromise that record then America needs its commercial space rides sooner rather than later.
Russia will miss having NASA spend $85 million or so a seat for rides on the Soyuz, the amount that will be paid in 2020 as the space agency awaits the arrival of the commercial crew vehicles. The Russian economy, overly dependent as it is on oil and gas and hobbled by corruption and inefficiency, will not likely bear an infusion of rubles needed to make up the difference. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also spending too much money on imperial adventures in Syria and Ukraine to spare anything for buttressing Russia’s space program. Whether Russia can sustain an independent space effort is open to question.
Having NASA funding American-based space travel firms rather than Russian ones will enable a private space flight sector. The ability to take people to and from low Earth orbit will be crucial for developing private space stations as envisioned by Bigelow and Axiom. Commercial space stations will eventually supplement and then replace the ISS.
Each crewed Dragon and Starliner flight to the ISS will have an extra seat that a private space traveler can purchase for a short-term stay on the orbiting space lab. Previously, several well-heeled and adventurous people such as Richard Garriott and Anousheh Ansari arranged for private flights to the ISS, using the Soyuz. Future private space travelers will fly on American spacecraft to the ISS and, later, private space stations. NASA is interested in buying some of those seats for its own use.
Both SpaceX and Boeing have a few tasks to complete before their commercial-crew spacecraft are certified by NASA to start taking astronauts to and from the ISS. But the future of privately-operated spacecraft that can take not only cargo but also people on space voyages is at last approaching.
The process has at times been unseemly. Another NASA OIG revelation was that the space agency is paying Boeing more than SpaceX for essentially the same service, $90 million a seat as opposed to $55 million. SpaceX’s Elon Musk is not pleased. But the goal of commercial-crew private space lines, with the added bonus of cutting out Russia, an increasingly hostile power, is all that matters. The sausage making that happens along the way will in the long run be of interest only to historians.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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