Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Space-y program

Post-shuttle, the US manned space program requires NASA to buy seats on Russian flights to the International Space Station (ISS), until crew-rated US commercial launchers and capsules come along. (I carefully don't call this NASA's manned spaceflight program, because I doubt anyone in NASA truly wants things to be this way. Congress and two successive administrations have been mucking up the works.)

Let's see how that plan is going ...

The Russian Space Agency (RSA) is going to pieces: failed cargo launches, failed satellite launches, failed Mars probe, and now: "Russia postpones two manned launches to International Space Station." This is the second recent suspension of flights by the RSA. And -- is this better or worse? -- the latest suspension is due to a new problem, not the same old fault recurring:
The postponement to future Soyuz lift-offs is needed because the Soyuz TMA-04M spaceship cracked after testing in a pressure chamber, Space.com reported  -- very different issues from the malfunctioning gas generator that caused the August, 2011, grounding.
A Soyuz III capsule
But maybe US commercial spaceflight will come along faster than first scheduled and take up some of the slack. Nope. Not going to happen, my friend.

NASA doesn't have the budget to maintain schedule (i.e., to make its desired level of progress payments to private firms for developing cargo and crew ships able to reach and dock with the ISS). The Wall Street Journal reported just last Sunday (yesterday in print) that "NASA May Need to Use Russian Flights Longer." Some choice snippets: 
"Given current funding levels," Mr. Bolden said in written testimony, "we anticipate the need to purchase [Russian] crew transportation and rescue capabilities into 2017." The commercial U.S. space taxis were originally envisioned to be in service by early 2016.
Commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station, originally slated for as early as 2010, are now scheduled to start in the second half of this year. But many space experts inside and outside NASA feel that timetable could slip further, and they say the international consortium running the station could face a serious crunch in supplies around 2014.
The space-shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.

So this report should come as no surprise: "Glenn worries the U.S. is ceding its space leadership." That's John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth -- fifty years ago. Here's how he describes the situation.
"A class-C movie, not even a class-B movie," Glenn said in an interview with CBS News. "Back in those days, one of the major driving forces in support of the program was the fact that we were in competition with the Soviets.

"And yet here we are these 50 years later, (paying) 60-some million dollars per astronaut to go up there and back. And this is supposed to be the world's greatest space-faring nation.
Not to mention that despite its name, the ISS was predominantly an American designed, built, and paid-for enterprise.

The federal government is, of course, running huge deficits. Is the problem that the US can't afford space, exploration, or aspiration anymore?

The budget numbers don't support that thesis. NASA's budget for the current government fiscal year (and the White House request for 2013) are about $17.7 billion. The overall federal budget enacted for GFY 2012 -- after much struggle -- calls for spending $3.796 trillion. NASA's spending  -- everything from robotic missions to manned exploration to R&D to education and outreach -- amounts to less than half a percent of federal expenditures.

(Contrary to weird statements about "wasting" money "out there," every penny is spent here, on planet Earth. As yet hypothetical Martian microbes do not get NASA stipends. But it's not all spent in the US: as above, by our own shortsightedness, big chunks of NASA's spending flow to Russia.)

NASA is not the reason America is going broke. But maybe America is going broke because we've lost the will to dream ....

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