As inevitable as gravity

As soon as President George Bush pulled funding for the X-38 vehicle (seen in picture below) in 2001, effectively cancelling the programme, NASA and the wider space community has known that buying Russian spacecraft was inevitable. Now it waits for Bush to finally sign the act that will allow NASA to do just that.


Under the treaty governing the international partnership that is the International Space Station (ISS) the US was to become responsible for crew emergency return after Russia had supplied 11 Soyuz capsules (see picture below) to transport crew and do the escape capsule job. When the X-38 was cancelled in 2001 it was clear that the US would not have its own vehicle to do the job come April 2006 when the last Soyuz fell to Earth.

The disaster that befell Space Shuttle Columba on 1 February 2003 only made the situation more acute. Not only was the US facing a situation where it could not provide emergency return it was also facing a situation where it could not even provide crew transport or supply the ISS. In April this year NASA told Russia’s Federal Space Agency that it would buy launches from the agency and its Russian industrial partners. The next shuttle launch is tentatively scheduled for May 2006, and a sustained return to flight following the successful Discovery mission earlier this year could help. But that second return to flight launch date might change, the external tank foam loss problem that destroyed Columbia and almost damaged Discovery is still unresolved and ISS operations must go on.

Over the last couple of months the US Senate and its lower chamber, the House of Representatives, have been passing legislation that would amend the Iran Non-proliferation Act (INA) 2000 to allow NASA to pay a Russian entity for services for the ISS. In 2000 the US government had passed the INA to punish Russia for what it alleges is that country’s companies help for Iran for its long range missile programmes. Now the act to amend INA sits on Bush’s desk awaiting his signature. The amendment is so NASA can only buy Russian services for the ISS and even then that is to end in 2012. Because that is the date that NASA’s new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) is expected to fly.


The Russians must be rubbing their hands with glee, they are looking at six years of NASA purchases. They have talked about charging the US $65 million a launch. Quite good value considering they charge space tourists $20 million for a ten-day trip. NASA will only say that they will negotiate a price, but they can’t do that till Bush signs the act. It hasn’t stopped the Russians leaking the fact that NASA is interested in buying two Soyuz and two Progress launches. Hello $260 million. A quarter of a billion dollars will be very welcome for the previously cash strapped Russian space industry. For a country whose total government space budget is estimated to be worth about $1.5 billion, its quite a sum.

And there are yet more opportunities for Russia. NASA has unveiled its plans for what it calls ISS Commercial Cargo and Crew supply. Foreign companies can bid for this business as long as the contract lead is a US firm. The CCC plan involves demonstrations. It’s expensive to develop and test and demonstrate a wholly new launch vehicle, especially one that is supposed to get supplies to the station. Why develop your own when as a US company you can talk to the Russians and beat the competition hands down. It’s the only country in the world with an automated supply ship, the Progress spacecraft. So its $260 million next year, and how many billions after that?

And all because Bush cancelled X-38. If he hadn’t the agency would right now be flight testing the X vehicle, no doubt given a different name come today. The US would also have a alternative to the shuttle and be at a much more advanced stage in its development than they are with CEV. They could also have developed a cargo version, as they plan too with the CEV. There must be a lot of people in the White House, in NASA and in industry with their heads in their hands. It could have been all-American and now its all-Russian. But there is an upside. The space economy has to become more competitive and less political and national pride led. If we really want lower access to space and space tourism and space hotels and more manned exploration to the Moon and beyond then governments and international bodies could gain much more bang for their buck with a global sourcing approach to space operations. What hope is there that this will happen? We could do worse than give President Bush a pen.



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