How Stupid Can We Be?
In the case of our manned space program, we’re about to find out.
If you’ve been in touch with the news at all, you know about the Russian invasion of Georgia. The Russians are not going anywhere for a while, and their continued presence will increase the friction between our country and theirs. That’s too bad, not only because of the tensed general state of the world but because of what it can mean for the US manned space program.
I’ve always been for cooperation between the United States and other countries, and I’ve always felt the US manned space program’s role in easing tensions between the US and Russia has been one of its brightest benefits, no matter what else we technically did or did not gain. But there is a subtle and important difference between cooperating with foreign partners and being dependent upon them. It’s not in the best interests of the United States to ever become dependent on any country for its access to space. Yet, with the upcoming retirement of the shuttle and the four to five year gap that will exist between that event and the rise of the Constellation program, the United States will be dependent upon Russian Progress and Soyuz vehicles to keep the International Space Station manned.
Now, here comes Georgia, the Russian invasion, and a possible new Cold War. At least that’s what’s being threatened, in true Soviet fashion.
Whether either country can really afford a new Cold War may not be a moot point, but I’m not going to explore that here. Even without that, any Russian whim can cut off US access to the ISS or make it so expensive the cost to get there is prohibitive. If that happens, we’re going to come to understand the short sightedness of mothballing the shuttle before Constellation is flying. Combine that with a rising Chinese influence in the conquest of space, and the United States could find itself, for the first time in its history, a spaceborne power flying in third place.
Yes, there have been recent efforts in the US Congress to extend the shuttle for a flight or two and even talk of using the shuttle to close the “Shuttle-Constellation” gap. The problem is that, because of current funding levels and the attitude of top officials in NASA and the administration, they want to stop the shuttle from flying as soon as possible to turn both their dollars and their efforts to Constellation. They don’t want shuttle extended. But just like human gestation periods are fixed, so is the time you can cut to bring a new program on board. Constellation can’t be born and flying soon enough to get us out of this mess.
There may be some time left to keep the shuttle flying until Constellation can lift off, assuming you can push that idea past the organizational resistance in NASA that would have to be overcome. But the last external tank for shuttle has already been built and tooling for the metal behemoths is already being torn down to make way for The New Toy. In our rush to bury what has been painted as a faulty past, we may wind up losing our near-term leadership in space. What that might cost us is anyone’s guess.