Commercial Crew cuts in the FY2016 budget

24 07 2015

If that title did not draw you in, how about this: Congress is favoring pork projects over maintaining and growing American human spaceflight (HSF) capabilities. The committee that allocates NASA’s budget appropriated the full amount request by the White House for fiscal year 2016, but screwed around with the line items to fit their own personal agendas, rather than what would be best for the country.

The final Space Shuttle flight ended on July 21, 2011 when Atlantis touched down at Kennedy Space Center. Since then, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft has been the only way to get people to space and back down again. Both the Soyuz TMA-M spacecraft and Soyuz-FG launch vehicle are reliable, safe, and affordable. However, it would take only a minor launch failure to ground them for several months. This happened when a launch failure during a Progress cargo ship launch earlier this year.

We need multiple spacecraft and multiple launch vehicles to ensure that no single incident can affect operations aboard the International Space Station. For example, if something goes wrong with Soyuz, we would be able to rely on Boeing’s CST-100 or SpaceX’s Dragon v2 while the Russians get up and running. CST-100 uses ULA’s Atlas V launcher and SpaceX launches Dragon aboard the Falcon 9 rocket. Three spacecraft and three launch vehicles means three layers of redundancy so that we will not ever have to abandon our $100 billion space station until its mission is completed.

Congress has shifted money away from Commercial Crew (CC), Commercial Resupply Services (CRS), and earth sciences. CC is still in the developmental phases. CRS is about halfway through its first round of missions and is vital for resupplying the station. SpaceX and Orbital ATK are the two partners in that program. NASA’s earth sciences are important for monitoring the condition of the Earth’s atmosphere and biosphere and for keeping tabs on the symptoms of global climate change.

The money drained from these programs has been moved over to development of the Space Launch System and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, NASA’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket and deep space exploration vehicle, respectively. SLS is not due to fly until 2018 and people won’t fly on it until at least 2021. The pace of development on SLS and Orion cannot be significantly increased by diverting more money to them at this point. NASA has warned that depriving CC of even a small fraction of the money requested by the White House could cause the program to slip its first launch date from 2017 to 2018, requiring NASA to purchase another four Soyuz seats for its astronauts at $75 million each.

The people who did this are just trying to keep people who worked on the Space Shuttle employed. That is exactly the reason Congress mandated that the SLS include a first stage derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank, four Space Shuttle Main Engines and a pair of five-segment solid rocket boosters derived from the shuttle’s SRBs. This is all money going to legacy contractors on a cost-plus basis. They hate CC and CRS because those programs send money to SpaceX and Boeing, not the people who get certain Senators reelected.

We need assured access to space. I am not upset by relying on the Soyuz to get people to space. I am worried that we only have one way to get people up there. We need redundancy. We need more than one option and I do not appreciate a bunch of lawyers with no technical expertise undermining programs that they do not understand so they can keep their jobs. It is very disheartening.

Why Russia is not our enemy in space

25 03 2014

I love space and I love learning more about spaceflight, especially when there are people doing the flying. I often get into discussions on the subject with people and the subject of being partners with Russia on the ISS invariably comes up. Most people seem horrified at the idea of America relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft and rockets to get our astronauts to space and back. I’m not entirely comfortable with it, either, but it’s really not that bad.

CBC’s Janet Davison interviewed Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield about working with Russians in low-Earth orbit. In the interview, he explained well why tensions between the West and Russia are not likely to interfere with ISS operations.

AST display at US National Air and Space Museum

ASTP display at US National Air and Space Museum

The first joint international mission in space was between the Soviet Union and the United States. Flown in 1975, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) featured the docking of an Apollo CSM and a Soyuz spacecraft and laid the groundwork for future cooperation in space. It led to Americans visiting Mir and for a much larger international coalition coming together to build the International Space Station. Russia and the United States are both partners in this project and it could not go on without either one.

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with Mir in 1995

Space Shuttle Atlantis docked with Mir in 1995

The Space Shuttles were retired after the programs 135th mission, STS-135. The Space Shuttle program extended from 1981 to 2011 and its duration is only exceeded by the Soyuz program, which began in 1967 and is still in operation today. The key difference is that the Shuttles were reused and the Soyuz is a single-use spacecraft. After 30 years and two lost orbiters, it was simply too expensive, difficult, and dangerous for NASA to continue the program. Next-generation spacecraft had been on the drawing boards for years and it seemed the time to give them a chance. Orion, Dragon, CST-100, and Dream Chaser are all beginning to come together to reduce the cost of going to space while allowing us to go much farther than we ever have before. There are some related videos for these vehicles below.

Space Shuttle Endeavour docked with ISS

Space Shuttle Endeavour docked with ISS in 2010

American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts are all professionals and know what their jobs are. They know that there is a time and place for politics and that neither the ISS, inside a spacecraft, nor while training are it. I wish that we had had a successor in place and ready to go before the Space Shuttles were retired. However, it is important to keep in mind that there was a period of six years between the last Apollo flight in 1975 and the first Space Shuttle flight in 1981. The Shuttles were grounded in 2011 and most of these new spacecraft are tracking for operational status in 2017. In just a few years, America will have the ability to launch its own astronauts and we can stop buying Soyuz seats from the Russians. Until then, we are still major partners on the ISS and will continue to be until at least 2024. Until then, we have to be patient. Space travel is a difficult, time-consuming thing.



Dream Chaser: