There is an old saying, “Two is one and one is none.” It means that if you have only one critical item, and that item breaks, then you have none. Having two of the same critical item ensures that work can continue if one breaks. Many of you have been in the situation where you only had one car for the entire household and that car breaks down. Suddenly you have no way to get both spouses to work, the kids to school, errands run, etc. It’s always easier when you have two or more cars in the household in the event of one breaking down. Life might get a bit complicated because you are suddenly restricted to one car, but life does still go on for the household.
We of course are facing that this very minute with our International Space Station. After Obama, Senator Bill Nelson, and NASA gave up our HSF, we became dependent on our old cold war enemy Russia for all transport back and forth to our $100 billion dollar ISS. JUST ONE MONTH AFTER THE SPACE SHUTTLE PROGRAM ENDED, Russia has had two launch failures. One last week that involved placing a satellite in an improper orbit resulting in the loss of the use of that spacecraft, and just a few days ago when the Progress Cargo ship crashed to the ground just minutes after launch, resulting in the loss of nearly 3 tons of fuel, water, O2, and various supplies.
Now the Russian fleet is grounded until the cause of the failures can be determined and fixed. Not surprisingly, that also means the next crewed vehicle that was supposed to launch in September is now grounded. Our ONE access to the ISS is now NONE.
What is surprising about this is the fact that NASA and Russia are now saying they may have to abandon the ISS in November if the fleet is still grounded. The ISS has been continuously occupied by both American and Russian crews, along with other international members for over 10 years. Just a little over a month ago, the very last Space Shuttle mission delivered what was supposedly a year’s worth of supplies to the ISS providing a cushion to ensure that we would not have to abandon the stationin the event of a Russian failure.
So why, after just a little over a month since the last Space Shuttle delivery, are NASA and Russia making noises they may have to abandon the ISS? One half of the crew, 3 members (1 American and 2 Russians) are returning in their docked Soyuz towards the end of September leaving only 1 Russian, 1 American, and 1 Japanese on board. There is no possible way that the crew of the ISS has expended that 1 year supply in just one month. So, why the rush to abandon the entire crew by November?
Some possible answers could be that Atlantis did not deliver a one year supply as NASA claimed, or didn’t bring up the “right” supplies leaving the ISS vulnerable. Other reasons given are “Flight rules call for returning crews to land in daylight. Their last daylight landing opportunity in November is Nov. 19. The Soyuz spacecraft that Volkov, Fossum and Furukawa will fly home will reach the end of its certified orbital lifetime before late December — the next daylight landing opportunity.” – source Florida Today
No matter the reason given for abandoning the ISS, one concern I have is the fact that since we have turned over the “car keys” to the Russians, it would be just a matter of time before they would take the “house keys” to the ISS. If the station is abandoned, what is to prevent the Russians sending up a Russian only crew once their fleet is flying again, leaving us on the ground? They could say that while things are so “precarious” for the ISS, and with the Soyuz capabilities in question, it might be prudent to use only Russian crews who are “willing to risk their lives” to “save” the ISS. If that happens, then they get station by default and we are left standing on the ground with no access at all. After that, they can find all kinds of excuses for not flying our astronauts to our station. They would not only possess the only means to get to the station, but actually physically possess the station and the only means to supply it. (Yes, I know that Japan and ESU both have supply vehicles, but they have only flown once during test flights.)
Russia has been a somewhat difficult but overall satisfactory ally during the construction of the ISS, but politically both our nations are still quite wary of each other. And, politics run Human Space Flight programs. It always has and politicians/national governments are usually more concerned about getting an advantage over their peers than being cooperative with their peers. Politicians and governments never let a crisis go to waste.
How could we head off this possible scenario? Well, NASA likes to make lip service that someday we may go into deep space or even on to Mars. Since a mission to Mars would take about 18 months round trip, why not send an American astronaut to the ISS for 18 months or longer to do a “Mars Voyage Study” and its effect on the human body? That way, though we cannot transport an American astronaut back and forth to the ISS for a long time (10 years or more), we can still ensure an American presence on our station. We can even share the results of our “study” with the Russians and our other international partners! Someone like former astronaut Story Musgrave, the father of the modern spacewalk, would probably go for that type of a mission. There would be risks for that astronaut. Prolonged exposure in Zero G of that time length has only been done by Russia (1 year), and the astronaut might not have a way home if there are not enough seats on the docked Soyuz space craft.
The point is, we must preserve what we have left of our HSF, so we cannot give up the ISS to another country that is our partner in space, but our former enemy and current competitor on Earth.