Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Relying on the Russians

This is not an encouraging development in the field of manned space exploration.

Almost six years ago, the nation embarked on a new space policy of retiring the Space Shuttle in 2010 (next year, after the International Space Station is complete) and replacing it with a new (and presumably safer) means of getting crew to and from orbit. This vehicle’s primary mission was to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond, but most people assumed that it would also be capable of replacing the Shuttle for that purpose. It wasn’t planned to be ready until 2014 and in the half decade since, the schedule has slipped years beyond that, while its budget has ballooned. So now the original “gap” during which the U.S. would be incapable of launching its own crews into orbit to change out astronauts at the space station has grown from three years to five or more.

What does this have to do with the Iranian nukes problem and the Russians?

It has always been assumed that “the gap” would be filled by Russian Soyuz flights, as it was during the previous “gap” created when the Shuttle was shut down for almost three years after the loss of Columbia. But there was always a bug in that ointment, called the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA). It is a U.S. law that prohibits purchases from countries that aid those countries for which it is named in their efforts to develop missiles and nuclear weapons. By the letter of the law, Russia has always been in violation of it, realistically, but it has always maintained sufficient plausible deniability to allow Congress to grant it waivers so that NASA could continue to get Russian support for ISS, which has been difficult to maintain without it, even with the Shuttle operating. Once the Shuttle retires, it will be almost unthinkable: Russia will have the only system capable of delivering humans to orbit.

Yikes. Perhaps we shouldn't retire the shuttle right now. Or perhaps we, as a nation, need to be encouraging private investment in space travel more than we are currently doing. I think a little more competition might lead to some faster developments, and it might let us get more ships up into space sooner.

(from Rand Simberg; hat tip, Instapundit)

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