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Set Safety Aside — We Need a Way to Get Into Space Without the Russians



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Taylor Dinerman had an NRO article recently about the current mess with the space program, both civil and military, as a result of our short-sighted decision to make it so dependent on the Russians at the end of the Cold War. It was a good history of it to date, but I’d quibble slightly with this paragraph:

After the Obama administration canceled NASA’s return-to-the-moon Constellation program, it reworked the COTS D idea into the current Commercial Crew Program. This program is funding the development of three manned spacecraft, the SpaceX Dragon, the Boeing CST capsule, and the Sierra Nevada mini-shuttle Dreamchaser. Of these, the Dragon is by far the furthest along. According to current plans, NASA and SpaceX hope to fly the first manned Dragon sometime in 2017. It might be possible to accelerate this program, but that would of course take money — from NASA’s already-reduced budget, from another agency, or through increased spending. (Note that the vehicle that will carry crew has actually been designated as “Dragonrider” by SpaceX).

In USA Today, I have an op-ed addressing this issue, pointing out that Dragon could in fact fly with crew aboard any time NASA wants, as long as we don’t insist on absolute safety. The reasons that the Commercial Crew program needs the money it keeps requesting (and not getting, though it came closer this year than ever) is because of Congress’s seeming obsession with safety, apparently putting it above national security and ending our dependence on the Russians. Coincidentally, I just wrote a book about that, not because I was prescient about the events in Eurasia over the past few months but because I have been appalled for years by the degree to which such dependence has compromised both our national security and our civil space activities. If Vlad Putin and Dmitry Rogozin have finally woken up the U.S. policy establishment to these issues, then they’ve done the nation a favor.

Sadly, though, even in the face of this reawakening, some in Congress continue their pusillanimity. Even more sadly, ostensible conservatives exhibit socialistic impulses. I write:

There is only one realistic way to end our dependence on the Russians for space transportation: accelerate the Commercial Crew Program established by the Obama administration as a follow-on to the successful Cargo Resupply Services contracts initiated in the Bush administration (a CRS flight launched a couple weeks ago and is at the ISS currently). For over four years, the administration has been requesting the funding needed to get at least one, and preferably more than one provider capable of delivering crew to and from orbit. Every year, Congress has refused to adequately fund the program, instead diverting funds to the Space Launch System, a rocket with no defined mission other than keeping some of what remains of the former Shuttle work force employed [and which under the very unlikely best of circumstances will do absolutely nothing to end our dependence on the Russians]. As administrator Bolden lectured them a few weeks ago in hearings on the Hill, their failure to provide requested funds has slipped the operational date from what would have been next year, out to at least 2017.

Instead, Congress continues to tell NASA to “save money” by narrowing down from three competitors to a single one immediately, using typical socialist arguments (from Republicans and Democrats alike) of the “inefficiency” of multiple providers. This, of course, ignores the fact that twice during the Shuttle program we were unable to get astronauts to orbit for over two years, because there was no backup to it after the Challenger and Columbia accidents, and that cost reduction comes only from ongoing competition.

Socialist fallacies aside, this is not a noble effort to save taxpayers’ money, but in fact an attempt to steer their funds to a parochial, more expensive constituency. As Greg Autry writes, this is really about protecting Boeing (and Houston jobs) from the industry disrupter (in an industry that badly needs disruption), Elon Musk:

Not content with attacking the sanctity of America’s highly regarded car dealers via direct sales of his annoyingly successful Tesla electric vehicle, Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies is now threatening to undermine the renowned efficiency of America’s Military-Industrial-Complex. A series of successful launches [of] SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule have left the traditional vendors looking overpriced and unambitious. Meanwhile, the DragonRider, a manned vehicle based on their proven design, is scheduled for testing of its crew escape system in a few months and could be ready to loft humans into space next year. This competitive approach puts unfair pressure on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), a multi-billion dollar state-owned rework of the space shuttle that is many years from flying anywhere. What’s a conservative congressperson to do?

If NASA were compelled to “downselect” Commercial Crew to a single vendor, Washington power politics would clearly favor Boeing’s CST-100 capsule, a luxurious spacecraft, that while it has never flown, is on track for some unmanned flights to the ISS in about three years. This leisurely development schedule puts no pressure on SLS. While it is surely coincidently [sic] that both the SLS and CST-100 programs are headquartered in Houston, we are lucky to have Messrs. La Branche and Culberson standing between us and the utter chaos of free market competition.

All of this is in line with Taylor’s summation, but this is the crucial point, from my USA Today op-ed:

Even [NASA’s requested funding levels] wouldn’t be necessary if Congress didn’t have such skewed priorities. It is needed because of congressional insistence on changing from the successful CRS program model, which provided results at much lower cost than traditional NASA procurements, to go back to the standard NASA procedures that increase costs and delay schedule, ostensibly in the name of “safety” (despite the fact that those procedures themselves resulted in the loss of two orbiters and the deaths of 14 astronauts in the Shuttle program). In fact, in the NASA authorization bill marked up by the House space subcommittee on [April 29th, the day that Rogozin taunted NASA to “get a trampoline” to get to the ISS), the phrase “safety is the highest priority” explicitly appears in reference to commercial crew. That implies of course, that actually getting crew to orbit is a lower one, and that the priority can be achieved by not flying at all. Had it been the motto in the sixties, we’d have never gone to the moon.

But it was important to go to the moon. We were in a race with the Soviets. Buzz and Neil thought they had a 50--50 chance of getting back, but they went. As I note there, I’m quite confident that today’s astronauts are no less valorous, if they were doing something important. But they haven’t been asked to in over four decades.

Autry has a similar recommendation to mine, though he (amusingly, to me) takes it a bridge too far:

Frankly, DragonRider could fly to the ISS next month if it were subject to the same expectations of safety as NASA’s Space Shuttle. A truly conservative response to Mr. Rogozin would be to announce that the United States is ready to move a DragonRider launch forward without further testing, send eight Navy Seals to the ISS and “liberate” our space station from Russia’s state capitalist squatters.

Ignoring the fact that the vehicle is only designed to take seven, not eight, and as far as I know hasn’t been outfitted (or has the volume for) weapons racks, this might prove to be an embarrassing assault when they show up and the Russians (of whom there is only one aboard the station currently, I believe, outnumbered by the other partners) decide to passive aggressively find something better to do than reach out with the Canada arm and berth the vehicle, and open the hatch for it. The ISS won’t be capable of autonomous docking until late this year or next, when the new NASA docking adapter is added to both the vehicle and the station.

If they did somehow manage to grapple and board, there is no gun locker on the station to repel boarders, but the Russians keep a hand-held shotgun in the Soyuz. It’s not for plunder on the high orbits, but to fend off wolves or hunt for food if they come down in an unfortunate unplanned location when they land in the Russian steppes or Siberia (which has in fact occurred in the past). It would probably be a suicidal weapon in close quarters in a pressure vessel.

I suppose the Americans could lay siege, and wait them out until ISIS runs out of food and air, but I’d make book that the large ISS with only three crew and sanitary facilities could hold out a lot longer in that regard than a cramped capsule with eight burly enthusiastically metabolizing men in it.

But military derring-do aside, he is right that we need to get someone up there ASAP. As the title of my book says, “safe” is never an option, especially in as harsh an environment as is space. All we can do is estimate the probability of loss of crew, and then decide how important the mission is. And to date, it hasn’t been very. I conclude:

In its actions, Congress sends a clear message that [independent space capability] is not important. They could fix that, though, with a simple amendment to that bill when it gets to the House floor. Replace the word “safety” in that absurd phrase, and make it “having multiple means of getting Americans to orbit on American launch systems is the highest priority.” And tell Rogozin to get his own trampoline.

This mess will continue until Congress gets serious about both military and civilian space. History indicates that it will not, on a bipartisan basis, but in the face of the latest crisis, hope springs eternal.

But on an up note, Dmitry might want to invest in a trampoline of his own, for recreation in his likely new spartan digs in Kamchatka, because he lost another rocket this past weekend, with fancy new satellites. While it’s a different type of Russian rocket than the one that delivers our astronauts to the ISS, it should give pause to those who think that it’s “safe” to fly on Russian rockets, but not proven American ones, escape system or no. Maybe he should switch to a trampoline for space launch himself.



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