Opinion: Is the Ukraine being used as a wedge to kill SLS?
The Space Launch System is not popular with everyone (yes, that’s an under statement). When President Obama canceled the Constellation Program, he didn’t want to retain any of it, not even the Orion capsule. After his first attempt at ending the program – the Space Launch System was created to salvage the nation’s manned space program. It now appears that world events are being used to try and once again cancel U.S. human beyond-Earth exploration efforts.
The Space Launch System or “SLS” has evolved into essentially Constellation by another name—minus the reusable rocket and the intent to return to the Moon. Some feel that SLS is simply too expensive and impractical a program, and that operating costs will keep it from achieving its objectives.
In a 2013 article, John Strickland of the National Space Society pointed out that a single SLS launch is estimated to cost $500 million, that this will limit SLS to a mere one launch per year if NASA’s budget remains flat, and that the decision to splash the Orion capsule down in the ocean rather than touch down on land will impact its reusability. Strickland and others believe SLS should be abandoned, and that commercial crew vehicles such as SpaceX’s Dragon should be used on existing rockets.
NASA’s Dan Dumbacher refuted Strickland’s article, pointing out that not having solid rocket boosters on SLS will defray the cost of booster retrieval, post flight analysis of reusable hardware, transportation, and so on, concluding that an expendable rocket makes more sense in the long run. Moreover, both Dumbacher and William Gerstenmaier have stated that NASA is looking into having SLS fly as often as once per year.
Only time will tell how ready commercial spacecraft are to embark on deep space missions—something no manned spacecraft has done since 1972. For their part, commercial vehicles have yet to launch a single human being into low-Earth-orbit – let alone to destinations beyond our home world. Now however, thanks to the crisis in Ukraine, proponents of Strickland’s view might just get their way – regardless of commercial space’s empty human spaceflight portfolio.
This past week NASA severed most of its efforts with Russia. Operations aboard the International Space Station are exempt from the moratorium—at least so far. It’s a sign of the deteriorating political situation, and probably inevitable. Russia was invited to partake in the ISS program during the Clinton Administration. What, at the time, was meant as an effort to ensure that Russian engineers stayed on the “right side” of the fence – has never really fit given the nation’s human rights record and history.
Ordinarily, this would be little cause for concern. As things stand right now, there’s little chance the crisis in Ukraine will lead to outright war, at least between the United States and Russia. Sooner or later the situation will ease and our space agencies will begin to work together again—though it’s amusing to imagine the awkwardness on board the International Space Station right now…
But the overriding implications are more alarming than amusing. Given that it was only a week ago that NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden testified before Congress that should the Russians deny American astronauts access to the International Space Station, he would recommend cancelling the Space Launch System. With that in mind, it might be wise to question NASA’s motives, as well as the wisdom of cutting off ties with Russia. What initially appeared to be a series of unrelated events – suddenly seem to be related after all.
Is it wise for NASA to take part in the escalating international tensions? It is the place of a civilian space agency whose focus is scientific research and international cooperation in space to join in the military fray? NASA’s announcement came at the same week NATO suspended cooperation with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been widely condemned for his occupation of Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea.
But should the political differences between the two nations affect the friendly relations between the space agencies? Is the Russian Space Agency complicit in any way with the goings-on in Ukraine? While NASA’s decision was likely made for them for by the State Department – at some point leadership has to come in and either an individual or an agency must stand for what is right. Too many poor choices and failures have been laid at the feet of: “I was just following orders…”
It could be argued that condemning Russia’s policies while maintaining a close relationship with the agency that carries our astronauts to the ISS would be a sign of weakness. But in all fairness, we put ourselves in a position of weakness. If we appear to be at a disadvantage, it’s because we are. Given that Russia controls access to the International Space Station, cutting our ties with them is a risky move, but an interestingly timed one.
Mr. Bolden must have known in last week’s testimony that this decision was on the table. Given this, it seems curious that he made the extraordinary statement that he would recommend canceling SLS should relations with Russia deteriorate—and then a week later NASA takes the initiative in escalating the deterioration of those relations. It is tempting to think that Bolden—and President Obama—might be deliberately hastening the end of SLS.
NASA issued a statement about the suspension of communication with Russia which rings hollow in light of the events of the past four years:
“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. 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. 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.”
Given that it was Obama who canceled the Constellation Program at the eleventh hour while still moving ahead with the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, indefinitely delaying U.S. access to space, the above statement seems rather disingenuous – at best. That’s not to absolve Congress of its failure to adequately fund Constellation or the new program (whatever that is), but for the regime of Bolden and Obama to posture a pro-space stance after such destructive mismanagement and lack of leadership is simply insulting. Obama’s and Bolden’s actions belie their words.
The sudden cancellation of the Constellation Program, the failure to replace Constellation with a viable alternative, the failure to make a public case for the new program, the failure to fight Congress for the necessary funds to launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, all speak to an agenda that does not prioritize NASA’s return to flight – in the slightest. Why would Bolden, a former astronaut, wish to do that? Firstly, perhaps as a Marine, he feels obligated to obey his commander-in-chief, and President Obama, for whatever reason, is dead-set on privatizing manned spaceflight. Secondly, perhaps Bolden honestly believes private companies are ready to take over manned spaceflight—a discussion for another time. Bolden’s suggestion to cancel SLS, followed quickly by NASA’s decision to cut ties with Russia, paints a picture of a concerted effort to use the international crisis to fulfill a politically-risky agenda: the end of U.S. manned spaceflight.
It’s perfectly possible, of course, that there is no plan to cancel SLS, that NASA’s current action is merely an extension of the current U.S. national policy or lack thereof, and that Bolden simply made a foolish comment while testifying. But those who are interested in America’s future as a space faring nation should pay very close attention to space policy decisions in the weeks and months ahead.
The views expressed in this commentary – are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.