Last week, Russia's Progress cargo vehicle, bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and carrying a load of supplies for several months to the astronauts waiting in orbit, was destroyed during launch. The vehicle, once attached to the station, was designed to also be able to fire its motors and help keep the station from losing altitude.
Russia uses essentially the same system to fly its Soyuz capsules, which carry cosmonauts (and our astronauts) to space. Since the end of the shuttle, the US is now almost totally dependent on this system to carry supplies and completely dependent on it to ferry our astronauts to and from space.
Following the loss of another Russian vehicle just a few weeks ago, and coming just as the US ended the space shuttle program, this disaster highlights the glaring mistake the US made by not planning ahead and enabling our own US companies to take up the slack once the shuttle was canceled, and offers us a chance to correct a major mistake we are about to make, unless we change our course immediately in space.
Admittedly, the Russians have run an amazing program to date, and their launch and space vehicles have a stellar record, with an almost unbroken chain of successful flights going back 30 years or more. Thus, in the absence of our own means of getting payloads and astronauts to and from space, they offer us a usually dependable means of doing so -- although at a premium rate for cargo and $60 million per astronaut, not exactly at a bargain price. (I signed up the world's first "space tourist," Dennis Tito, over a decade ago. His ticket cost a little over $15 million. One would have assumed costs should drop over time, as is the case with other exotic technologies... not the opposite. This price is more a testament to their ability to out deal our guys than anything else...)
These things happen. Space is dangerous and risks high.
Regardless of how we ended up in this sad position, the fact these failures are happening right now, just as we have almost abandoned our human spaceflight program and shifted to complete dependence on theirs, is almost the work of providence. It gives us the chance to change our course before we completely shoot our feet out from under us, or rather, before Congress does.
We need to fix a couple of things right now.
First, it is absurd that more then 50 years into the age of human spaceflight the entire world depends on one launch system to get people to and from space. This is not only depressing but dangerous, as there are no backup systems in case this sort of thing or worse happens.
Second, it is even more absurd that the United States, who largely funded and built the $100 billion plus space station, is having to pay another country to carry vital supplies and even our own astronauts to a facility you and I paid for.
The Russians will of course find the problem and fix it -- this time. But we will still be left with one type of vehicle operated by another country that has had a sometimes "interesting" relationship with our government as the only way for our people and payloads to get to space. Not good. This situation also brought back thoughts in my mind of what happened with the Columbia space shuttle. At the time, had we accepted the military's offer to use its high power telescopes to look beneath it and spot the holes that would later kill our people, there were only two ways to get them down, the shuttle (none of which were ready) and Soyuz (a long shot and also none ready to fly.)
There is an easy solution. In fact, we could have up to five potential and different spacecraft flying to space -- if Congress (once again) will simply get out of the way.
NASA is already trying to create a new commercial spaceflight industry that will be able to do all of these tasks, do them cheaply, do them safely and do them using different vehicles flying on different rockets. This means huge savings for the US taxpayers, more opportunities for NASA to explore for less cost and helps assure that next time one system fails there are other, different technologies and systems that can take up the slack -- or if needed -- save the day.
Sierra Nevada in Colorado, SpaceX in California and Texas, orbital Sciences in Virginia, even Boeing with its partner space station builder Bigelow Aerospace in Nevada, are building new systems capable of carrying up to seven astronauts or some serious payloads to the station. Problem is Congress is trying to kill them.
You see Congress, in particular Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, and Florida Senator Bill Nelson (with some quiet support from Senators Hatch and Mikulski) are intent on gutting the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDEV) and putting all the money into yet another giant, never to be built temp job creator popularly called the Senate Launch System.
Ripping over $600 million out of the already measly $800 the White House had planned to spend on CCDEV rocketships, which could be flying by 2015, these visionary Washington spacecraft designers have instead proposed we spend over $38 billion on a giant rocket that will fly astronauts around the moon in 2021 -- repeating the achievement of Apollo 8 only 53 or so years later and only ten years too late to help in this emergency.
Luckily, at least one Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher of California, has stood up against this "Lunacy" and called for some of the money now planned for SLS to be spent on accelerating the CCDEV program. An ironic and yet elegant jiu jitsu move against the forces of pork to be sure.
One can only hope that others on the Hill can put aside their own attachment to near term aerospace campaign contributions and partisan politics (as he has) long enough to join this call to do the right thing. After all, when it comes to saving the day, and who builds what with our money, I would rather the heroes who fly to ISS be funded by money spent in America, on riding on rockets built using innovative American technology and that they leave behind a new growth producing industry rather than prop up a dying one.
This isn't about the Russians, nor should it be. They are a great space-faring nation with their own agenda and plans. It is about us, and the failure of our leaders to plan ahead, and now their failure to step up and support an American solution to an American problem.
In an ironic twist on the old feared words "I am the government and I am here to help..." perhaps, if we can get NewSpace rocket builders some cash soon enough, what will be heard in a few months through the airlock of the International Space Station will be: "Hi, I'm with the private sector, and I'm here to help you..." in American English of course.