By Jesse Kirsch
WASHINGTON—The great Space Race has faded—in fact today the U.S. relies solely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for transport to the International Space Station. NASA is planning to change the status quo, but government issued reports suggest the space agency’s goals are too ambitious.
In the next 25 years, NASA expects to develop deep space travel capability, reach an asteroid, and finally send an American to Mars—potentially difficult plans considering the technology hasn’t even been fully tested yet.
Astronaut Scott Kelly launches to the International Space Station, or ISS, next week for a study of space’s long-term effects on the human body, another lead-up to NASA’s broader goals.
With the start of this yearlong mission aboard the ISS, one may ask how Kelly plans to leave the atmosphere next week.
“They just don’t make ‘em like they used to” speaks to American spacecraft as much as it does to cars these days—but he certainly won’t be flying in a Toyota either.
The American will launch from Kazakhstan aboard a Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko; and U.S. explorers may continue hitching a ride for the foreseeable future, according to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO.
“[In July 2014] we found that NASA had not matched cost and schedule resources to requirements for [the Space Launch System] program and was pursuing an aggressive development schedule,” said a December 2014 GAO report.
As a result NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, has been pushed back from a December 2017 to a November 2018 test flight date. The December report suggested that even with the delay, the SLS and other human exploration programs “are pursuing inconsistent and unrealistic schedule goals.”
NASA sees the glass half-full.
“We are keeping the teams working hard and we are making good progress,” said NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft. She referred to the December test flight of Orion, which is a new spacecraft built for carrying humans on new deep space missions.
“The SLS will take astronauts farther into space than ever before, while engaging the U.S. aerospace workforce here at home,” says NASA’s website.
Some members of Congress share this optimism.
“We are by our very nature a nation of explorers. Whether it’s Horace Greeley saying ‘go west young man,’ or our first efforts to land on the moon, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be beholden to somebody else’s time frame or let outside forces interfere with what we want to do,” said Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., in an interview last week.
The freshman senator, who serves on the subcommittee for Space, Science, and Competitiveness, added, “We have to be firmly in charge of our own destiny when it comes to our space capabilities and abilities and be willing to go it alone… as times may dictate.”
Ultimately, NASA aims to use new deep spacecraft to reach an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars by 2040.
“Good luck on that,” quipped former NASA chief historian Roger Launius. When asked what year he thinks SLS will launch, he replied “never.”
Launius contends the driving force behind the entire Cold War Space Race was a desire to prove that the U.S. was top dog.
“This was about assuring the rest of the world that the United States was second to none when it came to science and technology.”
Going to the moon was not about exploration as much as it was about asserting dominance.
“Had those Cold War objectives not been at play, we would not have gone to the moon… on the schedule that we did. We might have gone eventually.”
He explained there wasn’t much public support around traveling to the moon in the 1960s, just as enthusiasm seems to dwindle now.
Capt. Jim Lovell, a retired astronaut, sees value in going back to the lunar surface.
The spacecraft commander of the famed Apollo 13 flight, which was never able to put astronauts down on the moon, said “I think there’s a value in exploring what the moon has to offer.”
Lovell thinks the 2040 Mars landing “might be possible,” but he wants to see NASA build up confidence by trekking to the moon and exploring its entire surface.
“Space exploration is something we can all put our hands around and do. It’s an American thing that we can all be proud of what we do.”
But these missions are far fetched, says Launius. Getting to the ISS on American craft is much more feasible.
NASA has multiple commercial contracts in the works, including ones with SpaceX and Boeing intended to provide transport to and from the ISS. But those are not scheduled for completion until 2017.
“As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has made very clear, we don’t want to ever write another check to the Russian space agency,” said Kraft in an email.
However, the U.S. could continue to rely on Russia for any manned space transport through spring 2019’s return flight.
“Given the current maturity level of the [U.S.] commercial vehicles and the 3-year procurement lead time for Soyuz crew transportation services, NASA must contract for Soyuz now in order to assure uninterrupted access to ISS in [calendar year] CY 2018,” stated NASA’s February procurement synopsis.
Kraft called this “a contingency plan.”
Some may find this ironic, considering recent icy diplomacy between Russian and U.S. leaders.
Yet the American space agency says it’s business as usual.
“Space cooperation has been a hallmark of U.S.-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably, in the past 14 consecutive years of continuous human presence on board the International Space Station. Ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis,” Kraft said.
The ongoing space relationship isn’t at the top of some Ukraine advocates’ lists either.
“It’s not about the side issues,” said Ukrainian Congress Committee of America spokesman Andrij Dobriansky. During a phone interview last week, Dobriansky explained that his organization is more concerned with the U.S. fulfilling its aid promises to the Ukraine than anything else at the moment.
Policy experts think the status quo should remain as long everyone is reaping the rewards.
“Cooperation between Washington and Moscow in space isn’t about science and it’s not about strategic cooperation. It’s about demonstrating partnership,” said Stimson Center co-founder Michael Krepon in an email last week. The Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank, focuses on “pragmatic solutions to global security challenges.”
“Cooperation in space doesn’t have to be sacrificed to Putin’s actions in Ukraine, as long as we derive mutual benefit from cooperation,” Krepon said.
There is still the question of whether other nations may disrupt that cooperation.
“I think that there’s no doubt that as we look at new capabilities, there are actors out there who wish to militarize Space in a way that would jeopardize… the future of peace and prosperity around the globe,” said Gardner. “But our efforts ought to be purely on what we can do to further the interests of human space exploration.”