NASA depends on Russia to get American astronauts to the International Space Station, but this relationship has put the American space agency in a less-than-stellar position.
NASA has found itself in a tight spot lately. Since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, the United States has not been able to conduct space operations on an independent basis. Cargo deliveries to the International Space Station are currently contracted to privately-owned commercial spacecraft operators, such as SpaceX, and transportation for Americans travelling to or from the ISS is handled by the Russian Federal Space Agency, commonly known as Roscosmos, at a cost of $70 million per seat.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizing of Crimea, however, has complicated this already convoluted situation. On Wednesday, NASA announced that it is suspending most of its contact and activity with Roscosmos in reflection of the breakdown in diplomatic relations due to the growing international condemnation of the Russian Federation. With Russia’s claiming of Crimea being seen as an illegal land grab, NASA’s relationship with the Kremlin has been seen as a growing liability by many in Washington.
In a U.S. House Science Subcommittee on Space hearing Thursday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden pointed out that the current situation was the result of budget cuts, while Republicans on the committee attempted to shift the blame to the Obama administration’s decision to mothball the shuttle fleet.
The Space Transportation System program was started in 1972, and the first fully-functioning shuttle, the USS Columbia, was launched in 1981. The shuttles were meant to be shelved in 1996, but the program was extended due to delays in ISS construction. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush issued a directive to retire the shuttles in 2010. Congress passed a one-year extension in 2009, allowing the shuttles to be used until 2011. The decision to not seek a second extension was based on the deteriorating conditions of the shuttles and the shuttles’ insulation, as well as reflections on the re-entry disintegration of the Columbia in 2003.
With Congress opting not to fully fund Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, the space shuttle program’s successor program, Project Constellation — which would have seen the construction of the Orion Spacecraft — never happened.
In 2010, President Obama authorized the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services and the Commercial Crew Development program to develop and contract private spacecraft operators to carry NASA cargo and crew to the ISS. As this plan is not expected to be fully realized until 2017 — assuming NASA receives the necessary funding — the U.S. asked Russia, which has a fleet of Soyuz rockets in active service, to assist in the meantime.
As the U.S. needs Russia to ferry astronauts to the ISS and back, and as the U.S. and Russia are the two primary partners in the ISS, the U.S. cannot simply close the door on Roscosmos. That doesn’t mean that NASA must be happy with the situation, though.
“I do not want to be reliant on the Russians to get my crews to the International Space Station,” Bolden told legislators at the Thursday hearing in regards to NASA’s dependency on Roscosmos.
Without previous funding cuts to NASA, however, the space agency says its reliance on Roscosmos could have potentially ended next year, not 2017.
“NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space,” read a NASA statement released Wednesday. “This has been a top priority of the Obama administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches — and the jobs they support — back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.
“The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses to invest in America — and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.”