Lean on me

Last Thursday night, I stayed up late like many space fans to watch a “routine” Russian Progress cargo launch to the ISS. This was the 60th flight of a Progress to ISS, clearly a very reliable way to get cargo up there, given that only two previous missions had failed in their objective. But, one of those failures came only about 9 weeks prior, and just 6 days prior a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket also failed to reach orbit. So despite the apparently reliability of both the Progress vehicle and the Soyuz rocket family, the spaceflight world was on “pins and needles” as Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle put it.

There seemed to be a theme in the general mood last Thursday about being glad that Russia was able to have a successful launch, but regret that Russia is the country that had to save the day.

This mood is not surprising. Since the last Space Shuttle mission 4 years ago, America’s astronauts have only flown to space on Russian Soyuz capsules. And of course, there are political reasons – unrelated to spaceflight and ISS – that makes people wary to have close ties with the Russian government right now. The loss of two American unmanned flights to ISS in the last year highlights what is an apparently lopsidedness between NASA and Roscosmos when it comes to flying to space.

This whole situation causes the patriot to come out in a lot of people, which is also understandable. Americans have grown accustomed over the last 50 years to NASA being top dog in space. We want our astronauts launching from Florida, not Asia (much harder road trip) and we don’t want our tax dollars going to Russia either. This all makes sense, and I agree. We should all be excited for American space companies being successful, and the commercial crew flights from Boeing and SpaceX can’t come soon enough. Nevertheless, the narrative that somehow Russia has the upper hand is misplaced and frankly doesn’t make sense to me.

This is the narrative that has been a great political point in Washington ever since the end of the Shuttle program but has been used even more over the last year. The phrases people use are that we are “hitching rides” with the Russians or that we are “dependent on” the Russians. Some people are implying that this means the Russians have some sort of power over us. That they are somehow in control of the ISS program politically, and could use it as a bargaining chip if they wanted. In fact, last year Russian Deputy Prime Minister seemed to think that as well when he said that the US should “use a trampoline” to get to space and I even saw a blog article titled “No, Russia did not just kick the US out of the Space Station.”

What I would like to propose is an alternate perspective based up on a more nuanced consideration of what goes on in a partnership. Perhaps the politicians, including Rogozin, do not understand the nuances of what each member country really contributes to the ISS. Yes, right now we are “dependent” upon the Russians Soyuz launch vehicle to get to the ISS. But there is more to operating a giant space station than just getting up there.

Consider my wife (no seriously, stay with me here). Two weeks ago she fractured her right leg playing soccer and has been in a cast. She hasn’t been able to drive, so has been “dependent” on me to get around. I am her only way to work (kind of like the Russian Soyuz is the astronaut’s only way to work). Does this mean I have some kind of power over my wife? Yes, temporarily, but it wouldn’t make sense to exploit that power for a few reasons. The obvious one being that she is my wife and I’m not a jerk, but for the purposes of my analogy, let’s consider the others: while she is dependent on me for transportation and some chores around the house, I am dependent on her for companionship, love, conversation, and wardrobe ideas, not to mention she helps us pay the bills with her equally cool job at NASA! Like any balanced partnership, there is much more going on than just who can drive the car to work. And of course, the cast will come off in about another week and my period of apparent power will be over. What would it gain for our marriage in the longterm for me to somehow use the fact that I have to drive her around to get something I want?

The more I think about it, the more I think this is exactly like the relationship of NASA and Roscosmos in the ISS program right now. Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2011, it happened and cannot be undone, leaving us in a period of a few years during which astronauts will not be launching from American soil. But we are not in this space business alone anymore. The open-mindedness of the politicians and NASA management who went ahead with the ISS program over 20 years ago has put us in the unique situation of being able to keep our astronauts flying during our period of weakness, if you want to call it that.

But we are not weak. We invented the modern concept of Mission Control and continue to operate the ISS – and the odd Orion flight – from the Johnson Space Center, day in and day out. America has fully seven manned spacecraft* of some type or another in development right now. We operate the critical US Orbital Segment of the ISS without which the ISS could not function. Anyone who thinks it would be a technically simple thing to do for the Russians to “kick us out” and keep the ISS functioning without us (even if such a political move was likely, which I doubt) either doesn’t understand the International Space Station, or is oversimplifying the situation in favor of their politics.

Russia provides critical access to the ISS right now via the Soyuz spacecraft, as well as propulsive support and propellant resupply with the Progress spacecraft. However, just as critical, the USOS provides non-propulsive attitude control with the CMGs, so that the propellant doesn’t get used up so fast that it would be impossible to resupply in time. Also, over half an acre of solar panels on the US segment are needed to power those CMGs – not to mention we ship some of those kilowatts to the Russian Segment, since it has grown too big for its own solar panels over the years.

I could go on. Much of the redundancy of the ISS is built specifically around the concept that the backup system is on the other segment. Sometimes the cosmonauts are even assigned to sleeping quarters in Node 2, on the USOS. The ISS was designed as a partnership from the beginning and our joint interest in continuing our own individual legacies in spaceflight, which has now become a joint legacy, would prevent pretty much anything short of a complete diplomatic breakdown from causing either party to pull out of the program, because it would likely mean doom for the station itself.

So, before you go off on a rant about how its too bad that America is “dependent” on the Russians to get to space, think about whether we should be grateful we are willing to work together despite geopolitical tensions. Perhaps we should be grateful that twice in our time of need, after the loss of an Orbital rocket last year and a SpaceX rocket last month, they quickly launched a Progress resupply vehicle to restock the International Space Station. Perhaps we should be grateful that instead of our astronaut corps being grounded, like it was for 6 years between Apollo-Soyuz and STS-1, that our astronauts continue to fly in space and that our teams on the ground continue to hone their skills as we wait for the big adventures to come with Orion and beyond.

I don’t think we should let the politics and the nationalism overshadow what is really going on here. The International Space Station is just that, international. So to get bent out of shape over sharing rides is kind of counter to the whole point of the thing. Our access to space, to the ISS, is assured specifically because of the redundancy of the partnerships we have built. We have supply lines from America, Russia, and Japan on 4 different rockets. Very soon, our crew access will be from both America and Russia via 3 different rockets. It will be very hard to stop humanity’s access to space at that point. And who knows where we will go from there, together?

Thank you Russia, for letting us lean on you for a little while, as we journey onward.

*Orion, Dragon V2, CST-100, Dreamchaser, SpaceShipTwo, Lynx, New Shepard

July 7, 2015 7:27 am

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