Saturday, August 16, 2008

NASA, Russia, and The Space Travel Dilemma

America's Orion Spacecraft; to launch in 2013 2014?

When the space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft is supposed to be used instead, until the new American Orion ships are ready. But now that plan seems in jeopardy due to political concerns. Do we face having to expand our space program further... or even cutting it back?

Russia-Georgia conflict could affect NASA funding
WASHINGTON — Russia's military campaign in Georgia could have repercussions far beyond its borders, jeopardizing the U.S.-Russian partnership for manning the international space station over the next decade.

Lawmakers, including several from Texas, warned Friday that Moscow's air and tank attacks on its neighbor will likely prompt Congress to re-evaluate legislation allowing NASA to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for Russia to taxi astronauts to the space station.

The Soyuz spaceflights would span the five years between the shuttle's 2010 retirement and the launch of the new Orion spacecraft.

While some members predicted that Congress would eventually give NASA the go-ahead this year or next to work with Moscow's space program, others said they would rather see the retirement of the aging shuttle fleet put off a few years rather than rely on the Russians. [...]

Some people in Congress want to see our shuttle program extended, so we can avoid having to rely on the Russians for transport until our Orion spacecraft is ready (If it's completed on time, the latest estimate is September 2014. It's already been delayed one year).

The problem with extending the shuttle program would be that it's very costly, and would take money away from the building of the Orion spacecraft, causing even further delays. NASA would also like to stop using the shuttle, because of safety concerns inherent in it's design, and the age of the fleet. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft is known to be reliable, and seemed the ideal answer to the gap between the shuttle and the new Orion spacecraft. Too bad the Russian government isn't as reliable as the Soyuz.

Read the whole article for the details of the political debate. Some in congress are worried that opponents of the space program would use this as an excuse to de-fund it. Others are pushing for expanding NASA's budget to extend shuttle service AND keep the Orion spacecraft launch on schedule. I think that could be a tough sell in these budget-minded times. Yet at least the money spent wouldn't leave the country, but would be providing American's with jobs. And if the surge of the American dollar continues, that could also help economic concerns.

I think a lot is going to depend on the unfolding situation between Russia and Georgia in the coming weeks. But I don't doubt it's put a strain on NASA and their relationship with the Russian Space Agency. It's definitely dampened the enthusiasm of congress.

Orion spacecraft (right) docking at the ISS.

Related Links:

Surge for the dollar as global fears rise

Congress delays Orion Spacecraft launch date

No comments: