Human spaceflight is not what it used to be. When, on May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to travel into space, he rode atop a Redstone rocket – a modified U.S.-built missile. The Mercury-Atlas orbital flights and the Gemini missions also used modified American missiles as launchers, and the Saturn V moon rocket and the Space Shuttle were U.S.-built and operated.
The astronauts flying to the International Space Station (ISS) since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, however, have flown aboard Russian Soyuz capsules. NASA has been buying individual rides on them to ensure that the ISS has Americans aboard throughout its intended lifespan (which was recently extended to 2024).
Meanwhile, NASA has pursued a competitive process for developing a new American launch capability by incentivizing entrepreneurial firms. It will take several more years to realize success, but the performance thus far has been encouraging. SpaceX, for example, began flying cargo resupply missions to the ISS in 2012. Its leaders envision crew capsule test flights by 2015 and the potential for the first astronaut flights to the ISS later in this decade.
Although heralded as an innovative way forward, this approach has been controversial. In 2010, legendary astronauts Gene Cernan (Apollo 17), Jim Lovell (Apollos 8 and 13), and Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11) protested NASA’s approach in a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama. They warned that failure to pursue an aggressive government-funded space program “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
The debate is still raging. There are those who argue that we need to maintain a traditional approach to human spaceflight, with NASA owning and operating the launchers through contractors. It was through this method that the United States first sent astronauts to the moon – it has proven successful for more than 50 years.
Others embrace the private-sector option, which allows entrepreneurial firms to pursue innovative approaches to human spaceflight. Advocates of this approach criticize the traditional method by pointing out its large, over-budget space projects. Backers of the more traditional approach, on the other hand, believe that the entrepreneurial side will sacrifice safety.
The success demonstrated thus far heartens many, but if NASA’s approach fails, the United States may find itself indefinitely relying on the Russians for access to the ISS.
A new wrinkle concerning this reliance emerged in March 2014 as Russia moved to re-establish suzerainty over the Ukraine and the United States responded with economic and diplomatic pressure.
At the Obama administration’s behest, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden directed that most initiatives with Russia – explicitly excluding those related to the ISS – be curtailed while diplomats negotiated. This raised worries that the Russians might respond. For example, on April 29, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted, “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”
Rogozin’s bluster aside, Bolden observed, “I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises.”
Bolden is undoubtedly right that the various partners in the ISS will continue to support it. Everyone knows that it was only built because the parties worked together in the first place, and operating it through 2024 will similarly require everyone’s close cooperation. But there is a possibility that American astronauts will not be allowed flights on it.
It is easy to imagine a scenario in which Russia would curtail seats available on Soyuz for American astronauts. A contraction would send a powerful message to the United States if diplomatic relations do not improve.
To avoid reliance on good Russian–American relations, the United States must accelerate the development of an American rocket. Bolden has already asked for this, telling the U.S. Congress that “the choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to American soil or continue to send millions to the Russians.” Thus far, Congress has not acted to accelerate the development of an American-built rocket.
With sufficient resources and dedication, virtually anything imaginable in spaceflight could be achieved. Should we be concerned that those resources will not be available for the development of a next-generation American rocket? Is it possible that the United States could also lose its longstanding ability to fly astronauts to the ISS? Absent new rockets, what future might result? Clearly, it would not be one in which the United States maintains parity with the world in space exploration.