To Space By Trampoline
Although I try to remain detached and aloof from the vulgarity of international politics, I couldn’t resist just this one time. Did you see this news item in which Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, torqued at U.S. sanctions against Russia for stealing Crimea, suggested that we use a trampoline to deliver our astronauts to the International Space Station.
Well, that’s gratitude for ya, Dmitry. For those not paying attention, it may sound like Rogozin meant to say Russia is doing the U.S. and the world a huge favor by offering launch services to the ISS, now that the Shuttle is mothballed. The reality is that without U.S. and third country payments to Russia, Star City would be more of rusting parking lot than it already is. And just to show how grateful Russia is for the business, it has tripled launch fees since the shuttle went offline in 2011. So much for a new era in international cooperation in space. I suppose you could say that's market economics at work, but there ought to limit somewhere and I'd guess we haven't seen it yet.
But this unseemly war of words does cause those of us who think about such things to wonder whether the silver lining could be a call to accelerate the U.S. return to manned spaceflight with our own launch vehicles. As it stands now, NASA is developing a new launch system called SLS that’s not scheduled to fly until 2017, but the new boosters are scalable to eventually have more lift than the Saturn V that launched Apollo to the moon. In parallel, the Orion crew capsule is supposed to fly on a smaller Delta 4 Heavy rocket this year. But NASA recently announced the Orion launch date has slipped from fall to winter and given how things go, it might be 2018 or later before all of this comes together.
Feeling vulnerable yet? It depends, I guess, on how you feel about the importance and relevance of the ISS, which is currently the only real reason to have manned capability. So one question is, given how tense things are with the Russians and that they’re liable to get worse, should the U.S. firewall it and throw money at Orion and SLS to fly sooner? It’s not an easy question to answer because even if you think ISS is hardly worth the money—and I’m one taxpayer in that camp—there may be other good reasons to return to manned space flight. NASA has already listed two: an asteroid mission and a trip to Mars. And, anyway, is there the will to throw money at NASA in a time of strained budgets?
Never one to miss an opportunity, space entrepreneur Elon Musk weighed in with his own opinion this week. After Rogozin’s crack, he tweeted this: “Sounds like this might be a good time to unveil the new Dragon Mk 2 spaceship that SpaceX has been working on with NASA. No trampoline needed.” Two days earlier, Musk raised a little stink in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims protesting a contract the Air Force awarded to United Launch Alliance for a series of Air Force launches that didn’t allow other bidders. SpaceX complained that ULA’s launches will cost the U.S. four times the price of SpaceX services, but here’s the real kicker. ULA will use its Atlas boosters for many of the planned launches, rockets that use a super-efficient engine called the RD-180. The RD-180 is made by, you guessed it, a Russian government-owned company headed by Dmitry Rogozin. Welcome to the global economy. It works great until...it doesn't.
Prior to the outbreak of World War I, the 100th anniversary of which we observe this summer, Britain and Germany had extensive trade and economic ties. It was assumed then that such commercial bonds would make war an unattractive option. Ways would be found to avoid hostilities. Obviously, the history didn’t play out that way. One can only hope that 100 years later, it will be different. But so far, it’s not looking too promising.