The recent geopolitical tensions resulting from the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine have indirectly helped to reveal in a sobering fashion one of the major problems that has been plaguing the U.S. public space program for many years: the overall lack of foresight and national leadership.
The deterioration in U.S.-Russian relationships that resulted from the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula by Russia last month has awakened many in the U.S. to the implications of the lack of a domestic crew launch capability to low-Earth orbit, as evidenced in the various hearings that took place on Capitol Hill in recent weeks regarding NASA’s budget. Yet, despite the many rounds of finger-pointing between Congress and the White House over the issue, this state of affairs has resulted from a series of ill-fated and poorly thought-out decisions made in previous years by all interesting parties, including NASA’s leadership itself. These decisions left a lasting impact in a negative way, in almost every aspect of the space agency’s human spaceflight program, ranging from the ability to have regular access to the International Space Station, to setting realistic goals for deep space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
U.S. access to low-Earth orbit
With the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA has been entirely dependent on Russia ever since for transporting its astronauts to and from the ISS, onboard Russian Soyuz spaceships. Although the space agency had fostered the development of human-rated vehicles by private U.S. space companies under the Commercial Crew program since the shuttle’s retirement, the program hasn’t received adequate funding from Congress, which led to further delays in the development of domestic crew transportation services to the orbiting laboratory.
Russia’s actions in Crimea during the previous two months have received widespread condemnation in the West, with many countries imposing a series of diplomatic sanctions on the Russian Federation, including those that are its partners on the ISS program, like the U.S., Canada, and the countries of the European Union. While many have feared that these events could ultimately disrupt the normal operations onboard the ISS with Russia denying access to the orbiting laboratory to U.S. astronauts, NASA was quick to point out that such fears are unfounded and the relationships between the space agencies of the two countries continue to be harmonious.
Then, on April 2, the U.S. space agency posed its own sanctions on its Russian counterpart, by announcing that it was suspending communications with Russian government officials, due to the events in Crimea. Later the same day, the space agency released an official statement explaining the reasons for this action:
“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.”
In the week following the announcement, the majority of NASA’s ongoing engagements with Russia in space, like the operation of the ISS and the Russian-made Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons experiment, or DAN, onboard the Curiosity rover on Mars, as well as NASA’s participation in the upcoming 40th COSPAR Scientific Assembly scheduled to be held in Moscow later this year, were all exempted from this suspension of relationships between the two space agencies.
With almost every activity between NASA and Roscosmos essentially being uninterrupted by the ban, one has to wonder what exactly was the purpose of NASA’s announcement anyway. If the rationale was to accelerate development for Commercial Crew through the appropriation of more funding for the program, it’s a rationale that appears to be ultimately flawed. Even if Commercial Crew was fully funded tomorrow, the participating private companies would still have to go through the same development and certification process for their spacecraft, and their launch date would still be two years into the future, at the very least. “Engineering is engineering,” said Kelly O. Humphries, News Chief at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Texas, during an interview for Motherboard earlier last week. “We’re working with commercial companies to make sure everything is done properly so the spacecraft will interact properly with the International Space Station. You’ve got to do things the right way, to make sure things are safe for people.”
According to Dr. William L. Anderson, Associate Professor of Economics at the Frostburg State University, Md., the reason behind NASA’s announcement is just political posturing: “I think the decision, and I guarantee, it didn’t come from NASA, it came from the White House,” said Anderson during an interview for the Voice of Russia. “They want to make it look like they are doing something and so they pick what they would think would be an easy target. Although, let’s face it, it is not going to change anything in Crimea, it is not going to change the situation … I would say, [the ones to benefit are] probably the White House and certain Democrats and probably some Republicans, people who want to talk tough, that we have Americans that are looking at this and say “we have to stand up to aggression.” And is it hypocritical? Yes, but that is where it is coming from. You have people who are running for reelection, you have 1/3 of U.S. Senate, the entire House of Representatives running for reelection this year. So, you are going to have people trying to score political points. I guess they would be the ones to benefit. Certainly the people in NASA, especially the ones who become close to the people in Russian space agency, we are talking about people who are friends, they are not going to benefit from it, they are going to be hurt.”
Ms. Susan Eisenhower, Chairman Emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute and President of the Eisenhower Group, Inc, voiced similar concerns at her testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Science and Space, during a hearing titled “From Here to Mars”: “I was concerned to read NASA’s announcement last week that, in light of the Crimean crisis, NASA will suspend ‘the majority of its ongoing engagements’ with Russia, with the exception of continued US-Russian cooperation on the International Space Station …Those who are aggressively pushing for using space as a way to ‘punish Russia’ should be reminded that contact with countries that have [space] technical capabilities, have in the past been a way to enhance transparency …We must be wary of any space policy that provides only short-term symbolic satisfaction, just as we should be cautious of those who might want to exploit this crisis for short-term commercial or political gain. They could ultimately undermine our long-term strategy in space and possibly jeopardize the enormous human and financial investment we have already made.”
Even though Congress is largely to blame for underfunding the Commercial Crew program, thus denying the U.S. the ability to have a domestic launch capability sooner rather than later, the White House and NASA’s current leadership share as much a responsibility for putting the U.S. in such a position of dependency on Russia in the first place. Following his first months in office, President Obama made a sudden and unprecedented change of course in U.S. space policy, by announcing both the retirement of the space shuttle and the cancellation of the Constellation program, which aimed to provide access to low-Earth orbit and send astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
In all fairness, the shuttle’s retirement had already been announced by the previous George W. Bush administration back in 2004, following the tragic Columbia accident that occurred a year earlier. Yet its retirement was a part of Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, or VSE, that was announced at the same time, which NASA’s Constellation program aimed to implement. Under this plan, the shuttle was to be phased out in 2010, following the completion of the ISS, to be replaced by the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles for sending the also newly announced Orion crew capsule to destinations in low-Earth orbit and beyond. Even though the VSE was supported by Congress in both the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorisation Acts, unfortunately it didn’t receive the funding required, causing the program’s schedule to slip. “Congress has its own responsibility to bear in these matters,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah(D-PA2), Ranking Member on the Commerce, Justice, Science, Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, during a hearing held earlier this week concerning NASA’s FY2015 budget request. “It wasn’t the Obama administration, it was the FY2006 CR that underfunded Constellation to the point which it created this problem. This is before Obama was sworn in … But that is the origin of why there was a domino [effect] to the cancellation of Constellation. We need to put this in perspective.”
Although President Obama inherited the decision to retire the space shuttle by the previous administration, he also inherited the rest of the Constellation program as well. The newly appointed President chose to terminate both programs, however, while apparently failing or not caring to properly take into account the U.S. dependency on Russia that would result by this decision for launching American astronauts to the ISS for many years in a row until new replacement vehicles could be developed. Since the retirement of the shuttle was tied to the development of the Constellation program, a cancellation of the latter should prompt a re-thinking of the decision for the former, something that ultimately didn’t happen. The space shuttles were finally decommissioned following the STS-135 flight in July 2011.
That point was also stressed by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) during a debate with NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden at the recent hearing for the NASA Fiscal Year 2015 Budget Request, held by the House of Representative’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. “When the Space Shuttle was mothballed, President Obama was President of the United States. He could have made the decision to have continued to use the Space Shuttle, or he could have made the decision to keep it available in the event of an emergency. He chose not to,” said Brooks.
The resulting dependency on Russia, for which NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden has always been quick to express his vocal opposition and concern, apparently wasn’t an issue when this decision was taken. “I was the one who recommended to the President that we phase the Shuttle out,” answered Bolden. “I would have recommended we phase it out quicker. We were spending $12 billion over the same period of time that we have spent on SLS and Orion now.”
Even though the shuttle had been deemed too risky and expensive in the aftermath of the Columbia accident, NASA’s choices were rather limited when it came to low-Earth orbit access anyway. It would either keep the shuttle flying after the cancellation of the Constellation program until a cheaper replacement was ready (like the proposed vehicles under the Commercial Crew program), or it would retire it prematurely, thus relying on Russia for transportation services to the ISS. Seen in this light, Bolden’s argument that Congress alone is responsible for having NASA sending millions of dollars to the Russians seems more like an attempt at scoring some political points on behalf of the White House, rather than an honest assessment of the situation.
The Commercial Crew program has been one of the many points of debate between NASA and Congress, with the latter sharing most of the blame for not helping to accelerate the program’s development. NASA and the White House, on the other hand, have been consistently decrying the current lack of ability by the U.S. to launch its own astronauts to low-Earth orbit. They both share the same blame, however, for failing to provide the necessary leadership to prevent this from happening in the first place, despite all the declarations of commitment to the contrary.
You can read Part 2, here.
The author would like to thank AmericaSpace’s Jim Hillhouse and Ben Evans for providing their kind feedback.
The opinions presented in this article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent those of AmericaSpace.