U.S.-Russia tension heating up in space

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which kicked off the space race more than 50 years ago, are once again at play - this time with the potential to bring spaceflight for Americans to a temporary halt.

This week, NASA sent a memo to its employees, stating that communication with Russian scientists will be suspended due to the political situation in Crimea. The exception to the rule is any work directly related to the operation of the International Space Station.

But that could change if Russia decides to push back.

Since 2011, when the U.S. space shuttles were retired, America has been in the somewhat embarrassing situation of having to pay Russia millions of dollars for seats on their Soyuz rockets to send American astronauts up to the space station. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield also flew up and back in a Soyuz during his last mission. Until a replacement for the shuttles is built, there is no other way to reach the space station. So Russia could, if it wants to play the political game, cut the Americans off from the $100-billion space laboratory, which the U.S. mostly built and paid for.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden has used this opportunity to ask for increased funding from Congress to push the development of a shuttle replacement ahead faster, and free the U.S. from its dependence on Russian technology.

This situation can be good news for private space companies, such as SpaceX, which has already made four successful flights to the space station with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon Capsule. The capsule has only delivered cargo so far, but was designed from the beginning to carry crew. Other private companies are following suit and are probably smiling at this new situation, but it will still take a few years before they are ready to fly people.

In the meantime, if Russia retaliates by closing the hatch to Americans on the Soyuz, the International Space Station will become a political pawn, which goes totally against its purpose. Begun in 1998, the largest structure ever built in space has been truly international, with contributions from the U.S. and Russia along with the Canadian, European and Japanese space agencies. It has been a symbol of how cold war competition can be turned into co-operation where everyone benefits.

NASA chief Bolden has said the Russians cannot operate the station without U.S. participation, but that's not entirely true. The Russians have more experience operating space stations than anyone, with their space station Mir that flew in space for 15 years, and several smaller Salyut stations going back to the 1970s. The International Space Station was founded on Russian technology and can be maintained with a skeleton crew of three. So, it won't fall out of the sky if the Americans are not there. Most of the science experiments, however, would likely be put on hold, which is the purpose of the space station in the first place.

Canada's connection to the station remains strong, with this week's launch of a micro-satellite by our robotic DEXTRE manipulator. Whether our country decides to join the U.S. in the Russian boycott remains to be seen.

Politics have always played a role in space. It was fear and paranoia that spurred the U.S. to build rockets in the 1950s, because the Russians were ahead of the game and gaining what was perceived to be a military high ground in space. The race to the moon was really a demonstration of military might, where the two adversaries competed to build the biggest rocket. That race was very close.

Since those crazy days, when money was no object, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only way both countries could continue with mega-projects in space was to form an alliance. And until this week, that co-operation has worked.

Perhaps, once again, those political tensions will accelerate the development of new vehicles that will take humans beyond Earth - this time, past the moon to the asteroids and Mars. It could certainly provide a stimulus for the American space program and private industry.
But it's a sad state of affairs when it takes the threat of a war on Earth to get people to other worlds. You'd think we would do it for better reasons than that.