International Space Station (ISS): America Hooks a Ride, We Lose

Published April 16, 2010, 11:45 am, CST

corrections April 17, 2010 3:19 am, CST

by Diane W. Collins


Sen. Kay Bailey-Hutchison was on the Senate floor this morning trying to talk sense into President Obama and those who have helped develop his strategy for America's next stage in space exploration. While Sen. Hutchinson spoke about the end of the Shuttle program and Constellation's cancellation, President Obama was on Air Force One flying to Florida where he would address a group of scientists, administrators, astronauts and private investment firms at the Kennedy Space Center. There he was to announce "America's next stage in space exploration." I listened to well polished rhetoric and masterfully honed strategy but, the logic just didn't ring true.


ShuttleNow before my friends on the Left go off on me (and, yes I do have a few) let me explain how I reached this conclusion starting with Sen. Hutchison's remarks. According to the Senator, President Obama's FY2011 Budget did away with Constellation which included the Orion spacecraft and Ares rockets. This was the program mandated to produce the human transport vehicles that would replace the 30+ year Shuttle program being retired in September of this year. Constellation has been behind schedule and over budget but with the retirement of the Shuttle it is the closest thing America has to a human transport vehicle for the space program. Sen. Hutchison's point was retiring the Space Shuttle and canceling Constellation left us grounded. ... no means of reaching the soon to be completed $100B International Space Station. IMPORTANT: This wasn't a budget issue. The Space Program's budget was not cut. In fact, it was increased by $6B.


President Obama's answer to being grounded is to hook a ride with the Russian Soyuz space taxies and continue the development of the Orion spacecraft as an "emergency vehicle." The ride is pretty expensive. NASA signed a $335M deal on April 6th with the Russians to transport six astronauts in 2010... that's approximately $56M per astronaut and many have said they expect the price to increase even more once America enters human transport limbo. Sen. Hutchison went on to question why hitching a ride was necessary. According to the Senator, even if the government walked away from Constellation (a multi-billion dollar investment) we could still stretch the left-over Shuttle missions (two plus one contingent) to cover a period of time that would enable American innovation to produce a reliable human transport vehicle. Further, now that the Space Station is practically completed American scientists have been looking forward to performing research projects that cannot be performed on earth. Many fear our participation in such experiments would be severely limited by the loss of our own human transport system and, if past performance is any indication, these experiments could lead to new innovations with applications stretching throughout our economy. America would fall behind.


Obama seems determined to turn the page. He does not appear to look at the situation as a "Space Race" or America versus Russia and / or China but as a joint venture, which in reality it is. According to Wikipedia, "The ownership and use of the space station is established in intergovernmental treaties and agreements that allow the Russian Federation to retain full ownership of its own modules with the remainder of the station allocated between the other international partners." The remainder of the Station refers to the US Orbital Segment (USOS) managed by US NASA, European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace Exploration. It is basically comprised of the canceled US Space Station Freedom, a project approved by President Reagan and announced in 1984 but suffered cutbacks and was never completed as designed. America has a lot invested in the IIS and to leave behind or treat as less important the incredible discoveries awaiting us there where we will learn how to live in space (something important if we really intend to go to Mars) seems illogical.


Back to the Soyuz space taxies... I think Sen. Hutchison's point is well taken. We're leaving too much on the table for which there is no reason. The Space Program's Budget was not cut. The issue? Keep the money in America for American jobs. The $335M going to Russia to take six American crew members to the ISS in 2010 is a lot more than the paltry $40 million " to transform the regional economy around NASA's Florida facilities and prepare its workforce for the new opportunities." And the $6B over five years going to Florida to help create 2,500 jobs in support of going to Mars is less than we've spent on Constellation to date.


All this is glossed over by the "future vision" which is, of course, bigger and better than what we've done in the past including going to the Moon, according to Obama. We are to set our sights on an asteroid and then Mars... with timelines as far out as 2030. Interestingly, examination of the President's FY2011 Budget shows us while America looks up toward Mars, Obama is already turing NASA into an organization that "solves" global warming and airplane travel, studies the life cycle of the Arctic shrimp and figures out what Toyota did wrong with the brakes. I'm sure the brightest and best will stick around for that... sure. According to the US Treasury Department at the end of February 2010, Russia owned $120B and China $877.5B in US Treasury securities making them debt holders #5 and #1 respectively. That's quite a bit of leverage. What's next? The Statue of Liberty?