‘We have an agreement until 2012 that Russia will be responsible for this,” says Anatoly Perminov, head of the Russian space agency, about ferrying astronauts from other countries into low-Earth orbit. “But after that? Excuse me, but the prices should be absolutely different then!”
The Russians may be new at capitalism, but they know how it works. When you have a monopoly, you charge monopoly prices. Within months, Russia will have a monopoly on rides into space.
By the end of this year, there will be no shuttle, no U.S. manned space program, no way for us to get into space. We’re not talking about Mars or the moon here. We’re talking about low-Earth orbit, which the U.S. has dominated for nearly half a century and from which it is now retiring with nary a whimper.
Our absence from low-Earth orbit was meant to last a few years, the interval between the retirement of the fatally fragile space shuttle and its replacement by the Constellation program (Ares booster, Orion capsule, Altair lunar lander) to take astronauts more cheaply and safely back to space.
But the Obama budget for 2011 kills Constellation. Instead, we shall have nothing. For the first time since John Glenn flew in 1962, the U.S. will have no access of its own to any system for putting humans into space — and no prospect of getting there in the foreseeable future.
Of course, the administration presents the abdication as a step forward: Launching humans will now be turned over to the private sector, and NASA’s efforts will be directed toward landing on Mars.
This is nonsense. It would be swell for private companies to take over launching astronauts. But they cannot do it. It’s too expensive. It’s too experimental. And the safety standards for actually getting people up and down reliably are just unreachably high.
Sure, decades from now there will be a robust private space-travel industry. But that is a long time. In the interim, space will be owned by Russia and then China. The president waxes nationalist at the thought of China or India surpassing us in speculative “clean energy.” Yet he is quite prepared to gratuitously give up our spectacular lead in human space exploration.