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by Morris Jones
Sydney, Australia (SPX) Jun 23, 2014
We can't ignore the elephant in the room. International spaceflight is in a critical state. Even without tensions over Russia's annexation of Crimea, there is enough trouble to cause much of the overall structure of astronautics to collapse. We have a perfect storm of financial austerity, technical problems, ageing hardware and management failures.
Spacewatchers mostly face this stoically, knowing that spaceflight has been limping along for decades. That's true, but a generally mediocre situation could be about to become much worse.
Let's consider the biggest question of all. Does the International Space Station have a future? There have been calls to extend Station operations beyond the current deadline of 2020. Just months ago, America was interested in keeping ISS running until 2024 or possibly even longer. Today, nobody is really sure where America or most of the international partners stand.
The exception is Russia, which is the only nation to actively state a clear policy. Russia will continue to support ISS until 2020 and then stop. That's not encouraging for a long-term future for ISS. The incredible code of silence currently practiced by the rest of the ISS community is troubling.
This is a huge, expensive, high-profile project. Can it really be possible that nobody knows what they are doing? As long as such questions provoke silence or silly platitudes from NASA public affairs, there will be no rebuttal to that theory.
The apparent lack of a clear strategy is unsustainable and will have to be resolved soon. NASA has recently been heavily criticized in the mainstream media for its dependence on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for all American astronaut launches. It will face even stronger criticisms if it cannot present any fundamental plans for human spaceflight.
Bringing the axe down on the International Space Station would be a major blow to spaceflight. However, it could become the first in a sequence of dominoes to fall on each other, each triggering the fall of the next.
The next domino to fall could well be NASA's Commercial Crew transport program. This involves the sponsorship of private-enterprise crew spacecraft with NASA funds. The eventual goal is to produce a vehicle that can transport astronauts to the Space Station and wean the USA off its dependence on Russia.
The operations of this program have been controversial for years, with advocates suggesting that not enough is being spent to help the private sector build these vehicles. A tug-of-war over funding between these new ventures and "old school" space companies also seems to have manifested.
Already somewhat hamstrung by poor political and financial support, the termination of the International Space Station could be a fatal blow for this program. Why build crew transfer vehicles for a space station that's about to be scuttled?
Admittedly, there's a gap here. Current contracts for Soyuz launches for US astronauts do not extend to 2020. In the current political climate, American lawmakers may find it unpalatable to send more money to Russia for this purpose. If the commercial crew program fails to deliver an operational vehicle before the Soyuz contracts run out, what happens? One outcome is unpleasant to contemplate but not inconceivable. The International Space Station could see out its final few years without any NASA astronauts aboard.
That's difficult to believe, and it should prove a strong incentive to see commercial crew funding rapidly stepped up soon. But even if America develops one or more commercial spaceships, how long will they be in operation? These spacecraft are tailored to be taxi vehicles to a space station. They can achieve little by simply orbiting Earth on solo missions. Without ISS, where will they go?
Elsewhere in the world, nations that have invested in modules, cargo ships and infrastructure for the International Space Station will need to re-group. They may end up sending guest astronauts to future Russian and Chinese space stations on Soyuz and Shenzhou launches. It could be an effective way to stay in the human spaceflight game without spending huge amounts of money. As this happens, their indigenous capabilities for building human spaceflight hardware will atrophy.
Now back to NASA. There's a push to develop a large rocket called the Space Launch System and an Orion astronaut capsule to ride atop it. Old-school spaceflight never dies! This proposal comes with the advantage of channeling funds and political support to certain US electorates. It isn't clear how much this will cost or what exactly America plans to do with it.
It could possibly fly astronauts to the Moon or an asteroid, although the details and the funding are sketchy. One thing is sure. Any attempt to somehow link the SLS/Orion system to any proposed mission to Mars should sound alarm bells. It cannot and will not happen. But never mind. As long as the politics and the pork barreling work out, that will be enough for some people.
Remember the NASA Constellation program of the last decade? The goal was to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon. Constellation gobbled money for years before it was terminated. Will this latest project be any more successful? It's sobering to weigh the odds. If the program does not deliver prompt results to a cash-strapped federal government, it may well be terminated with nothing productive to show for all the time and effort invested.
Would America then be out of the human spaceflight business? Hopefully not. But how will they stay in the game?
The scenarios outlined in this article are very bleak, but they shouldn't be ignored or dismissed as impossible. It is this author's sincere hope that international spaceflight as a whole will be more fruitful, but wishful thinking does not dispel the hard issues we confront. It's time for clear thinking. It's time for support. It's time for action. If we do not see any real progress before the end of the year, some of these hypotheticals will change from being possible to probable.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst who has written for spacedaily.com since 1999. Email morrisjonesNOSPAMhotmail.com. Replace NOSPAM with @ to send email. Dr Jones will answer media inquiries.
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