July 20, 2010

U.S. National Security, the Space Station, and Scrapping the Space Shuttles

Unremarked in the news are the national security dangers in giving Russia an absolute monopoly on US crew launches to the space station (ISS) after the space shuttle program is scrapped and until the time private launch systems are available.

After the final space shuttle mission, the US will be completely dependent upon Russian launches to the station, opening up the US to potential extortion by an increasingly aggressive Russia to demand concessions in US foreign, economic, trade and defense policies to continue providing launches.

Russia has already taken advantage of their upcoming monopoly by doubling the price for launches. This is international cooperation?
http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=10/04/08/037221

Troubling signs: Russia's initial reaction to the discovery of the 10 Russian spies in the US was to blame us for discovering their spies, not apologizing for spying on us. Also, Russia cut off natural gas to Europe in a dispute with the Ukraine: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7826142.stm

Who would rule out any possibility of Russian 'leverage?' Suppose there is a foreign policy crisis, a war, or Russia invades a former USSR republic--what price in US policy might Moscow extract to keep launching our crew, or to even allow US crews to ever use the station again?

Should relations in a crisis or war become bad enough, might Russia declare ownership of the ISS, knowing they control all possible U.S. access? One clue may be in their agressive actions at the North Pole:
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article4773567.ece
Finally, the incident on July 2, 2010 where an unmanned Russian Progress cargo ship completely missed the space station (later it was brought under control and docked) shows technical risks which could endanger the space station.
http://www.space.com/missionlaunches/russian-cargo-ship-docks-space-station-100704.html
Indeed it was a Russian Progress which crashed into the Russian Mir space station in 1997, almost causing it's destruction. The circumstances then were unusual, but illustrative of the potential for damage; for the July 2 Progress could have crashed into the ISS as easily as missing it entirely. The linked account of the 1997 incident is fascinating reading; showing the "right stuff" of astronaut Foale in computing how to stabilize the spinning station, and the entire crew in saving the station by fast action:
http://plus.maths.org/issue39/features/foale/index.html

There are many ways the US and its ISS partner Russia can and should cooperate in space and with ISS, however it is unwise for the United States to rely entirely upon Russian launches for a period of years.

Keeping the space shuttles in continued service (not just adding one or two final missions) until American replacements are ready is essential for our national security.

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