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Russia's Space Program Could Crush the U.S. Over the Next Decade

Illustration for article titled Russias Space Program Could Crush the U.S. Over the Next Decade

When NASA retires its three space shuttles in 2010, US astronauts will have to rely on the Russian space program to gain entry to space and the International Space Station. Until 2015, when the Constellation program is scheduled to begin launching the Orion spacecraft, the US plans to purchase seats on the Russian Soyuz craft. Now some NASA officials are warning that America's presence in space could be hindered further by US-Russian tensions and the emerging Chinese program.In 2004, the Bush administration introduced its “vision for space exploration,” which includes retiring NASA’s existing shuttle fleet and introducing Constellation, a new launching program using an updated capsule and rocket system. However, the administration, not wanting to inflate NASA’s budget, decided that manned space missions would go on a five-year hiatus, and that American astronauts should instead fly on Russian spacecraft. But the recent political tensions between the US and Russia have complicated this plan. Although NASA does not doubt Russia’s commitment to transporting US astronauts, the US’s commitment to manned spaceflight will be greatly tested if relations with Russia continue to deteriorate. Following Russia’s military action in Georgia, Congress was stalled the bill to approve NASA’s purchase of seats on Russian spacecraft beyond 2011. The approval for the purchase of seats through 2016 did ultimately pass, but the incident prompted NASA administrator Michael D. Griffin to speak out against the current policy, which he called "unseemly in the extreme":

In an e-mail message he sent to his top advisers in August, Dr. 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.”


Griffin further suggests that the gap poses an unnecessary risk to the US space program:

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


Griffin fears the consequences of any delay in the Constellation program, which comes at a time when China’s space program is rapidly advancing. Even if the current plans go according to schedule, the US will not return to the moon until 2020. Proponents fear that by then, the US will already be behind the curve. One Way Up: U.S. Space Plan Relies on Russia [NY Times]

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For all the talk about a new space race and international do-or-die competition, the fundamental fact remains that nothing will change this game except a cheap, safe way to get to orbit. Win that race and you can launch to any destination any time for pennies on the dollar compared to rocketry, shuttles and space planes. (a reliable scram jet may help, but may never pass low orbit) It will never happen as long as people are required to sit on top of huge piles of explosives.

Maybe the Japanese aimed at a space elevator because they couldn't justify the money and risk on a rocketry program, or maybe they actually believe that whoever makes getting tons of equipment from planetside to space without tons of volatile explosives is going to win. Period.

Men on two month vacations to mars will not change the game (Even though I believe robots on long-term duty could). Making regular trips to orbit without relying upon combustion is the future.