This article has been updated 2011/08/31 due to breaking news:
AP reports that the International Space Station may have to be evacuated if Russia doesn’t get to the root of the Soyuz problem.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post after attending the launch of the Juno mission to Jupiter at Cape Canaveral.
In the short span of time since that date, the Russians lost a Proton rocket carrying an Express-AM4 satellite on August 17th, when an upper-stage failure caused it to crash in Kazakhstan.
The very next day, August 18th, the Chinese launched a Long March 2C rocket to nowhere, carrying what Xinhua described as “an experimental Shijian 11 satellite” (more likely, a surveillance satellite for its military), the debris from which is presumed to have “fallen back to earth.”
And just the other day, it was the Russians’ up again, and they hit it out of the park. A Progress cargo ship on top of a Soyuz rocket, carrying 3.5 tons of fuel and cargo intended for the crew of the International Space Station (ISS), failed just under five and a half minutes after launch. Its remains are now buried somewhere in the Altai Republic (not to be confused with Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila), in a Siberian forest.
Though not quite as monumental as the Tunguska Event, this third and most recent crash is very troublesome for our manned space program, since we’re planning to rely on Russian Soyuz rockets to take live human American astronauts to and from the ISS at least for the next five years. Are we out of our freakin’ minds?
According to former astronaut Leroy Chiao, the U.S. is currently paying Russia about US$63 million per seat to put an astronaut into space on a Soyuz spacecraft. A Soyuz fits three people. There are six people already living in the ISS, who will need a Soyuz capsule in which to return. What if the Russians fall short, or outright fail? Do the math. Houston, we’re gonna have a problem.
SpaceX is looking at a seven-passenger vehicle with a US$140 million price tag, which would work out to US$20 million per seat, according to former astronaut Ken Bowersox, now Vice-President of Astronaut Safety and Mission Assurance at SpaceX. With a US$1.6 billion NASA contract to deliver cargo to the Space Station in hand, Bowersox is confident his company’s Dragon spacecraft can be human-ready in three years.
Nine thousand workers lost their jobs when the United States trimmed the Space Shuttle from the budget. Another 14,000, according to Florida Today, will lose their jobs in hotels, restaurants, and other industries serving tourists.
We’ve already got domestic companies who have the proven track records the American space program requires: United Launch Alliance and United Space Alliance, whose existing fleet and technology can provide the vital link between supply on earth and demand at the International Space Station. Add SpaceX and Virgin Galactic into the equation, and despite no one being perfect, we’re going to see better results from good old American effort than we’ve seen from Russia and China together.
How much more does America have to rely on its potential adversaries? Today’s developments are not the worst thing to ever happen to our manned space program. But it’s in the top 10.
If we’re going to be putting the hit on the richest of the rich, and we should, let’s make them invest in American jobs at the same time. Bowersox suggests creating advertising revenue. Brilliant! That will help the bottom line too. American companies put money into name rights for major league stadiums and arenas. Why can’t it work for the space program? If NASA’s proven they can do anything perfectly in its 50-year history, it would be their ability to stretch the envelope.
I’m sure there are greater minds than mine working on America’s space program; in fact I’m damn-well positive. But in the past couple of weeks, the Russians and the Chinese have put billions of dollars into very expensive fireworks shows, and this country cannot afford that kind of luxury. Especially with American lives on the line.
Further developments will appear in new posts.