Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rocket From Russia: US Space Program Now Dependent on the Kindness of Strangers

Metaphor Alert time: in this age of budgets that are constrained, yet growing unsustainably - neat trick, huh? - we have a fitting symbol for America's shrinking ambitions as a once great nations turns its sights from the stars to the more prosaic goal of "free" health care for all. I talking, of course, about the imminent mothballing of the NASA Shuttle fleet, and our coming dependence upon El Cheapo Russian technology to get into space.

Circling the Earth every 90 minutes, the International Space Station is the most expensive project ever assembled in space. Within days, it will hang by a single, costly thread. And Russia, the U.S.'s historic rival in space, is holding it.

The last U.S. space shuttle is scheduled to blast off Friday. After that, the U.S. and other nations will rely on vintage Russian spacecraft to ferry their astronauts to the $100 billion station. Russia will hold a monopoly over manned spaceflight, and tensions already are rising. The Russians are in the process of nearly tripling the cost of using their Soyuz crew capsules for transport to the orbiting base, and other countries have little choice but to pay up.

"We are not in a very comfortable situation, and when I say uncomfortable, that is a euphemism," said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency, one of five international agencies that jointly manage the orbiting laboratory. "We made a collective mistake."

Now, this is a temporary setback, as the next-gen vehicles are supposed to be ready for action by 2016. And, the Obama administration's decision to essentially privatize space flight is one of the few policy decisions that they has drawn praise from libertarian types who want to see the bloated, corporatized NASA sent out to pasture. Still, it doesn't exactly help morale to know that we are going to depend on the Russkies for space travel.

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