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Space Flight

Space Flight

by William H. Benson

December 4, 2014

     On November 23, a week ago last Sunday, another Soyuz rocket launched three astronauts into outer space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and after a six-hour flight they docked at the International Space Station 268 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The three included the Russian cosmonaut Anton Schkaplerov, the European Space Agency astronaut from Italy Samantha Cristoforetti, and NASA’s Terry Virts.

     They joined the three others already there: NASA’s Barry Wilmore and two Russian cosmonauts, Elena Serova and Alexander Samokuyaev. On Thanksgiving Day, the six-person crew of Expedition 42 enjoyed smoked turkey, candied yams, green beans, cornbread dressing, and cherry-blueberry cobbler. The six will conduct experiments aboard the ISS over the next five and a half months.

     United States astronauts and Russian cosmonauts assembled the ISS a unit at a time. The Russians launched the first unit, Zarya, on November 20, 1998, and two weeks later, on December 4, NASA launched the Unity Module. When the the third unit, Zvezda, docked with the first two units on July 12, 2000, it permitted a crew of at least two to live inside the three units for weeks at a time.

     After twenty-six space shuttle flights that carried a stream of units, trusses, and solar panels into space, ever since 1998, the ISS now has fifteen pressurized units: seven from the United States, five from Russia, two from Japan, and one from Europe. The ISS’s total cost now stands at $150 billion. NASA has focused upon the ISS since July of 2011, after Congress, in a budget-cutting frenzy, terminated the space shuttle program after thirty years and 135 missions.

     There are some though that are not sorry to see the space shuttle retired. Carol Pinchefsky of Forbes magazine argued that “it killed more people than any other space vehicle in history,” that “it was very expensive,” that “it never went very high,” and that “it was designed to fly fifty missions per year.”

     Fourteen people died in the two space shuttle explosions. It cost a total of $173 billion, or an average of $1.3 billion per flight. It was intended to last for only ten years, and yet NASA extended its life for another twenty years past its expiration date. On average it flew only four missions per year.

     In 2005, the NASA official Michael Giffin called the program “a mistake,” and “inherently flawed.” Because it stifled creativity and innovation, it missed its intended goal to “get more people into orbit, more often, and for a far reduced price.”  

     NASA has decided for a time to exit the space entry business, turn it over to private industry, such as SpaceX, and concentrate on experiments in space at the ISS.

     While NASA was spending vast sums of money on the space shuttle, the Russians stuck with their big, simple, and inexpensive Soyuz rockets, designed in the 1960’s. “Russia in seen as having the world’s safest, most cost-effective human spaceflight system available.” Although the Russians hesitate to provide official data, rumors speculate that each Soyuz flight costs less than $100 million.

     NASA now depends upon the Russians to deliver its astronauts to and from the ISS, a predicament for the United States, and some have warned of the consequences. First, the Russians will continue to increase the price NASA pays. This year NASA signed a deal with the Russians that will last until 2017 to pay $70.7 million per seat to fly on a Soyuz rocket, an increase of about $8 million. 

     Prior to his passing, Neil Armstrong said that we now have an “unacceptable flight risk,” because “Soyuz lacks airlocks, life support systems, and a robotic arm to repair the ISS.”

     Chris Kraft, a retired engineer from the Johnson Space Center, warned of a “catastrophic re-entry” of the 400-ton space station should it collapse into “a shower of debris” upon Earth’s surface. “It is never wise to play Russian roulette in space,” he said. John Glenn said that “Our astronauts will have to be launched in Russian spacecraft, from a Russian base in Kazakhstan, to go to our space station,” and so he added, “this is hard to accept.”

     And after witnessing Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimea this year, we know that the Russian leader is determined and aggressive, someone the United States should hesitate to trust. 

     The two questions of the day are, “How will NASA sustain the ISS’s operation without the space shuttle, and how can NASA lessen its dependence upon the Russians?” NASA is not forthcoming with answers, but the space organization must answer them someday. As for the second question, I say that either a private company or NASA should begin building its own Soyuz-styled rockets, inexpensive but effective and safe. NASA needs a taxi into space that is based upon United States soil now.

     As for the first question, I wonder if it is wise for NASA to focus upon the ISS and lessen its focus upon space missions, manned or unmanned, to the moon, to Mars, or to Jupiter. The questions remain.


     In the meantime, the six-person crew will celebrate Christmas at the ISS in three weeks.