Who cares if the US abandons human space flight?

The impasse over the future of the International Space Station has some worried about the future of “international spaceflight”. Space analyst Morris Jones sums up the worst case scenario, in which the US-Russia troubles and the US-China suspicions create enough trouble to “cause much of the overall structure of astronautics to collapse.”

Since Russia announced it would pull out of the International Space Station in 2020, no other nation has given a clear signal about their future policy. But the role of the ISS means that if it goes, the plans around NASA’s Commercial Crew transport program could also be scrapped, meaning that plans for a private-sector spacecraft bite the dust too.

Then it becomes a very chicken-and-the-egg proposition. “Why build crew transfer vehicles for a space station that’s about to be scuttled?”

Dr Jones puts a timeline on the impasse, writing “If we do not see any real progress before the end of the year, some of [the] hypotheticals [about cancelled programs] will change from being possible to probable.”

It is a moment when the world is looking to the US for space leadership. I sense that behind the US silence is the same debate that is affecting the wider society and economy: who has power? Elon Musk’s SpaceX has challenged the duopoly United Launch Alliance has in sending US military satellites into space. The US military-industrial complex is nothing if not a cozy little arrangement. Its major players are not going become truly competitive without a fight first. Of course a duolopy will want to exclude a new entrant. But this same tussle over what is fair in business and the economy is happening in many sectors of the US. For example, it’s happening in the internet with the net neutrality issue, in which the entertainment companies want to carve out a fast-lane for their own content, essentially undermining what makes the internet a place for real competition. And fight back from consumer activists is pretty ferocious.

This would seem to be far from the battle for space prestige. But these struggles are everything in America these days.

The question in all of this is whether there can by a galvanizing force to kickstart the US space program back into action. If Russia telling the US to suck eggs on the ISS and China building their own isn’t enough of a catalyst, it’s not clear what would be.

NASA itself has surveyed stakeholders on their opinion of space flight for National Research Council’s report Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration. The survey of 1100 stakeholders drawn from scientific, educational, engineering, security and media backgrounds found:

that “U.S. prestige”—a concept linked to national pride and identity—would be the greatest loss if human
spaceflight activities in Low Earth Orbit and beyond Low Earth Orbit were terminated. Such a loss could be greatest for future generations.

The exact breakdown follows in a chart called:
What Would Be Lost If NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program Would Be Terminated (Open
Ended, All Mentions):


The report elaborates on the nature of national prestige, as well.

As difficult as it is to characterize other benefits of human spaceflight, the cultural “value” of human spaceflight and the role it plays in national pride and identity is even more difficult to assess. National identity has been defined as “the cohesive force that holds nation states together and shapes their relationships with the family of nations.” National pride is “the positive effect that the public feels toward their country as a result of their national identity….it is both the pride or sense of esteem that a person has for one’s nation and the pride or self-esteem that a person drives from one’s national identity.” Collective experience is represented in and reinforced by national pride and can be reflected through symbols of national experience or achievement, with which national pride is strongly correlated.

Given the worsening geopolitical situation for the US, and the fact that strength through superior technology would support the country’s security as well as economy, the silence over the future of the ISS and space in general seems strange. For those who point back to the urgency of the US space program during the Cold War, the question today is how do you achieve that kind of focus and urgency in a time of a globalized, networked population that has been told for decades that globalization is not only benign but preferred and anything that smacks of nationalism is damaging? And how do you motivate politicians and the public to support the US space program when job growth remains weak, earnings have struggled and the prospect of achieving the American Dream appears to be receding for many. A major theme may be that while in the 1950s the US was clearly in competition with the Soviet Union, today it is unclearly in competition with China. That is, the US is competing with China. But the contest appears marginal to most Americans.

Elites (politicians, policy people, strategists) in the US realize this – but until there is pressure from the public for action on the space program, which could well look like an extravagance to many Americans, the US response may be missing for sometime. In that time, the overall capacity for humanity to travel into space may decline.

International Space Station: Now what, NASA?

There is a defensive ring to the NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s claim that Russia’s decision to pull out of the ISS won’t have an impact of the success of the station.

Bolden said no one country, including Russia, is “indispensible” in keeping the ISS in use. Yet, undoubtedly there are some hard questions being asked in Washington and Houston about the future of the ISS.

As space analyst Dr Morris Jones points out, this is a crucial period for the future of global space programs

This period when NASA is weak in vehicle infrastructure is the most strategic window to launch a blow to NASA’s space program. Russia would certainly understand this. NASA needs some crisis planning right now. It’s almost certain that there’s a lot more talk happening behind closed doors than we know.

The biggest risk is that the US, in a pinch, will choose to put resources into maintaining the status-quo with the ISS. NASA will be tempted to do this so it’s not embarrassed when and if China has its space station Tiangong-3 or Heavenly Palace aloft, scheduled for 2023. That would follow NASA’s current embarrassment of no longer being able to launch its own astronauts into space – a problem to persist until 2017 at the earliest.

But if NASA focuses too many resources on maintaining the status quo of the ISS, it will likely delay a serious stab at putting astronauts on Mars.

As the dynamics of space competition reshape along the lines of new geopolitical rivalries, the US will need to think long and hard about how it can show leadership in space. The clearest way is a manned mission to mars. This is not a new idea. My 1980 World Book Encyclopaedia set includes a detailed graphic on what a mission to Mars would look like. NASA engineers and planners fully expected to head to Mars after the successful Apollo program to the moon.

But NASA’s interplanetary budget became a victim of the budget issues of the 1970s, when a recession and the gas crisis were in full swing. Not only was the budget cut but the momentum slowed and the nation’s attention began to drift from space programs.

It will be interesting to see if the pressure NASA is coming under from the Russians and Chinese produces the will to push on to the next planet. Recall that the catalyst for the Russian to announce the ISS pull-out began with a move in the US to break the monopoly Boeing and Lockheed Martin have on military satellite launches. Any credible disruptor force to the cozy space industry in the US could unleash the kind of competition that benefits the overall program. But the main thing is for the US space program not to focus on the short-term need at the expense of the long-term strategy.

Space shuttle launches and why the US gave them up

or…Congress reacts to the news that Russia is pulling out of the International Space Station in 2020 and fully plans to frustrate American intentions to continue with it.

From the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

After a summary of NASA’s assessment that there was no threat of Russia interrupting the flow of astronauts to the ISS on March 27:



The heart of the matter.


This will get interesting. It may help shake the US space community out of its lull.

There is a trilateral dynamic to this, as well. Russia will huff and puff, but as the US responds, America’s ability to compete with China will increase.

International Space Station: the Russian view

Like so many crises, the decision by the Russians to put the kibosh on the ISS after 2020 began in a courtroom, and not a Russian one. Elon Musk’s US-based SpaceX, which is developing rocket engines, had been pushing for a way to break the duolopy Lockheed Martin and Boeing have in sending military satellites into space. Once Russian deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin had been named in US sanctions leveled against Russian leaders, SpaceX asked a US Federal Court to bar the duopoly, known as United Launch Alliance, from buying Russian made RD-180 motors, which are used in Atlas rockets that can launch US military satellites.

“Mr Rogozin said the exports could continue if the US gave guarantees that the motors would not be used to launch military satellites. But, given ULA’s critical role in the US’s military satellite programme, such guarantees look unlikely,” the FT noted.

And while the Russians were reconsidering their rocket sales, they reconsidered the ISS and the state of the US and Russian global positioning system placements.

Below are the important statements regarding Russian plan to pull the plug on its participation on the International Space Station, first from Russia, then NASA, then United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. I have not seen a statement from the ESA or the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Please note: I have edited the quotes to focus only on the ISS, and not the rocket engines Russia sells to the US – which are addressed in a pointed statement from ULA further below.

Briefing by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and Head of the Federal Space Agency Oleg Ostapenko on international space cooperation

13 May 2014

We were somewhat surprised, if not amused, by the fact that the United States is prepared to reduce cooperation in every area with the Russian Federal Space Agency, except the ISS. Basically the US wants to keep those areas it’s interested in, but it’s ready to take its chances in other areas that are less interesting for them.

We also realise that the ISS is quite fragile, both literally and figuratively. This concerns manned space missions and the life of the astronauts, and we’ll therefore proceed extremely pragmatically and will not hamper the operation of the ISS in any way. However, it should be kept in mind that, by creating problems for us, for the Russian industry developing launch vehicles that can fly Russian cosmonauts and US astronauts to the ISS …

It is absolutely obvious that this is some kind of logical inconsistency on the part of the United States. The US creates obstacles with regard to launch vehicles and evacuation systems. But at the same time, it believes that the ISS should not be tampered with. Our US colleagues have told us that they would like to extend the ISS’ operation deadline until 2024. But the Russian Federal Space Agency and our colleagues, including the Academy of Sciences and the Russian Foundation for Advanced Research Projects are now ready to make some new long-term strategic proposals linked with the subsequent development of the Russian space programme after 2020. We plan to use the ISS exactly up to 2020.


On the Russian modules of the ISS

Specialists from the Russian Space Agency will confirm, as they’ve reported to the Government, that the Russian segment – strange as it may seem – is capable of operating independently from the US, but not vice versa. That’s a feature specific to the station.

On rockets

Russian rockets will remain the only means of delivering astronauts to the International Space Station for the next few years. The United States has no such spacecraft, and so dependence on Russia for extending the work of the ISS, although mutual, is larger for the United States.


Russian decision about ‘parrying threats’ not escalating them

We certainly won’t make the bad situation being deliberately created by Washington even worse. This isn’t about responding to military threats in outer space, of course; this is a different matter, for another kind of audience.

Rather, it’s about parrying threats, including prospective ones, related to anti-missile defence and our aerospace defence programmes. Not to mention civilian space exploration. We’re going to act with utmost care. What we’ve just said comes down to bringing about a respectful attitude toward us, our industry, and the interests that define our nation’s high-tech image.

A halt in launches

Comment from Federal Space Agency’s Oleg Ostapenko:

There were some obstacles, because launch licences had not been issued for 2014, 2015 and 2016. As of now, the licences for 2014 have been issued. What is our reasoning? We do have licences for spacecraft launches in 2014. But considering that our partner is not reliable, as Mr Rogozin has said, we are also considering the worst case scenarios.

We will keep working in Russia to resolve this issue, and we will also carry on our cooperation with NASA and the European Space Agency.

From NASA, which hadn’t been informed of the decision, a much more terse statement (in full):

Space cooperation has been a hallmark of US-Russia relations, including during the height of the Cold War, and most notably, in the past 13 consecutive years of continuous human presence on board the International Space Station. Ongoing operations on the ISS continue on a normal basis with a planned return of crew tonight (at 9:58 p.m. EDT) and expected launch of a new crew in the next few weeks. We have not received any official notification from the Government of Russia on any changes in our space cooperation at this point.

Possibly one of the most interesting statements is from ULA (comprised of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) regarding the planned export restrictions on Russian rocket engines.

ULA’s statement in full is as follows:

ULA and our NPO Energomash supplier in Russia are not aware of any restrictions. However, if recent news reports are accurate, it affirms that SpaceX’s irresponsible actions have created unnecessary distractions, threatened US military satellite operations, and undermined our future relationship with the International Space Station.

We are hopeful that our two nations will engage in productive conversations over the coming months that will resolve the matter quickly.

ULA and our Department of Defense customers have always prepared contingency plans in the event of a supply disruption.

ULA has two launch vehicles that can support all of customers’ needs. We also maintain a two-year inventory of engines to enable a smooth transition to our other rocket, Delta, which has all US-produced rocket engines.

A final note. I think soon, in the not-too-distant future, the idea that the US would use Russian rockets to launch its military satellites into orbit will seem an oddity – and an extreme one – from a different time. If I had to describe that time, I would call it the era of benign globalization. And that period is passing fast.