News From Space: Cold War Chill Returning to Space

Space_race1[2]It’s no secret that relations between the US and Russia have been strained due to the latter’s recent military activities in Crimea. And now, it appears that Russia is using their space program as leverage in their ongoing fight over sanctions. Back in April, NASA announced that collaboration with Roscosmos – Russia’s Federal Space Agency – had ended for the time being. Since then, an escalating war of words and restrictions have followed.

For instance, in the past months, the U.S. has restricted communication between some American scientists and their Russian colleagues as part of their protest against Crimea. In response, Dmitry Rogozin – Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Russian Military-Industrial Commission – said on his Twitter feed that he is restricting the export to the US of Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines, for uses that do not involve the U.S. military – a move which has temporarily grounded all US military satellites from being deployed into orbit.

NASA_trampolineMr. Rogozin also posted an image of a trampoline with a big NASA logo in the centre, saying that after 2020 it is the technology U.S. astronauts will need to use get to the International Space Station. One week later and in response, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that the cooperation between NASA and Roscosmos on the International Space Station hadn’t changed “one iota” in recent years, and has withstood the increasingly frosty atmosphere between Washington and Moscow over the events in the Crimea and Ukraine.

Still, Bolden indicated that if for one reason or other a country should drop out of the project, the others would seek to continue. But in the meantime, this would means the US would lose its capacity to put its own spy and military satellites into orbit, the future of the International Space Station (ISS) would be uncertain. In addition to the US, Japan, Europe and Canada are also members of the ISS and all currently depend on Russian Soyuz capsules to take astronauts to the space station since NASA retired its shuttle fleet.

International-Space-Station-ISS-580x441All in all, it is a sad state of affairs, and not just because of the repercussions to space exploration and scientific research. As a product of post-Cold War co-operation, the ISS cost $100 billion to create and was arguably the most expensive multinational peacetime undertaking in history. Now, it is being threatened because the two nations that came together to make it a reality are regressing into a state of Cold War detente. And though the Russians currently feel that they have the upper hand, the long-term reality is far different.

Back in the early 1990s, both the U.S. and Russian space programs were floundering. The Russian program was running broke because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was operating a space shuttle program that was proving to be more expensive than promised. The Americans were also having difficulty finding support for their Freedom space station project, which had a budget that was also ballooning upwards, and the Russian’s weren’t sure how much longer Mir would remain in operation.

Earth_&_Mir_(STS-71)Both countries agreed the only way to keep their space programs alive and build a large space station was to share the costs and technology, which also allowed other countries from Europe, as well as Japan and Canada, to participate. In the 13 years since it has been occupied, the International Space Station has literally known no borders, as astronauts from dozens of nations have participated in missions that have had wide-ranging benefits.

And in the process, Russia has benefited greatly in financial terms as the US has paid tens of millions of dollars to have American astronauts fly aboard the former space station Mir and ride along on their Soyuz rockets. If this friendly arrangement breaks down, it will cost both countries dearly. Russia will lose all that income from the sale of its space technology, and the U.S. will have to accelerate the development of its own space capsules and rockets to launch people and satellites into space from American soil.

dream_chaserStanding on the sidelines are individuals and private companies like Elon Musk and SpaceX, the Texas company that already builds its own low-cost rockets, along with space capsules that have been delivering supplies to the Space Station. In addition, Sierra Nevada, a private aerospace contractor, is working with NASA to produce the Dream Chaser as part of the agency’s reusable vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing (VTHL) program.

Between SpaceX already delivering capsules to the ISS, its successful reusable rocket demonstrations, and the multiple proposals NASA has for a new era of space vehicles, the US space program may not be grounded for much longer. And there is something to be said about competition spurring innovation. However, one cannot deny that it is unfortunate that the US and Russia may be once again moving forward as competitors instead of companions, as that is likely to cost all sides far more.

But of course, there is still plenty of time for a diplomatic solution to tensions in the east, and plenty of reasons for all sides to avoid regressive to a Cold War footing. We’ve come too far at this point to turn back. And considering how much of our future depends on space travel and exploration going ahead unimpeded, we can’t afford to either!

Sources: cbc.ca, phys.org

News from Space…X: Reusable Launch Vehicle Good to Go!

spacex-falcon-9-octaweb-640x427After years of research, development and testing, SpaceX (Elon Musk’s poster child of the commercial space travel revolution) is about to attempt something truly revolutionary. In a bid to significantly reduce the costs of sending rockets into space, they will attempt the first ever soft landing of a heavy space launch vehicle. Initially planned for March 16th, the company has since updated the launch date to March 30th in order to give its techs more time to prepare.

On this day, if all goes according to plan, SpaceX mission CRS-3 will lift off from Cape Canaveral on a resupply mission to the International Space Station. In the past, rockets blasting off from Earth would normally ditch the massive primary stage of their assembly into the ocean after launch. But this one it will sprout some metal legs and use what’s left of its rocket fuel to slowly return to Earth.

spacex-falcon-9-rocket-largeThis is perhaps the single most important step in SpaceX’s stated goal of reducing the cost of space travel by a factor of ten or more, which will ensure the acceleration of space travel for the indefinite future. One of the primary reasons that the human exploration of space is moving so slowly is the cost factor. For heavy lift vehicles, which are required to lift large satellites, equipment, and supplies into space, it costs roughly $22,000 to lift a single kilogram ($10,000 per pound) into orbit.

It costs even more to send a rocket beyond Earth’s gravity well and out into space, which is why reducing costs is seen as intrinsic to sending manned missions to Mars. Currently, NASA pays around $70 million per seat aboard the Soyuz space capsule, thanks to the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. But a crewed version of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, DragonRider, is also in development, which will reduce the cost per seat to $20 million.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424SpaceX debuted its Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) tech on the suborbital Grasshopper rocket in October of 2013. This came after multiple launches were conducted that saw the rocket reach greater and greater altitudes and which tested its ability to maneuver horizontally. Once this was complete, they began the task of fitting a Falcon 9 with the Merlin rocket engines, which would bring the vehicle back to Earth after the first stage rocket detached.

For this flight, the first stage will still land in the water to minimize the chance of damage if something goes wrong. But once SpaceX is confident that it can do a soft landing with its RLV safely, future launches will see the first stage fly all the way back to to the launchpad. After that, SpaceX will start bringing the second stage back to the launchpad, too. The eventual goal, according to SpaceX, is to create a launch system that is reusable within “single-digit hours.”

grasshopper_lateraldivertBasically, SpaceX would give these rockets a quick once-over, fill them back up with fuel, and send them back to work. If everything goes to plan, the total cost per pound to launch into Earth orbit could drop to $500 or less — one twentieth of what unreusable rockets cost. Suffice it to say, if SpaceX manages to undercut every other space launch company in the world — including the Russian and Chinese governments — it could suddenly find itself in a very powerful and lucrative position.

Not only would it replace Russia and the Ukraine as NASA’s primary contractor, it would also see to the restoration of America’s ability to send people, equipment, satellites and supplies into space from its own soil. Given the current state of tensions in the Crimea, this is sure to put a smile on a lot of people’s faces in DC. The launch is currently scheduled to take place at the end of March and there will be a live NASA feed to cover the rocket’s descent.

And while we’re waiting, here’s a clip of SpaceX first testing out the Grasshopper rocket to take us back:


Sources:
technologyreview.com, extremetech.com

News from Space: Crimean Crisis Highlights US Dependence

crimean_crisis3The crisis in the Crimea continues, with Russia and the Ukraine threatening military action and the US and its western allies threatening sanctions. In addition to anxieties about the likelihood of war and the conflict spilling over into other regions, the crisis has served to highlight other possible global repercussions. And interestingly enough, some of them have to do with the current balance of space exploration and research.

In essence, every aspect of the manned and unmanned US space program – including NASA, other government agencies, private aerospace company’s and crucially important US national security payloads – is highly dependent on Russian & Ukrainian rocketry. Thus, all of the US space exploration and launches are potentially at risk amidst the current crisis.

SoyuzCompared to the possibility of an outbreak of war that could engulf the Eurasian triangle, this hardly seems terribly consequential. But alas, quite a few people stand to suffer from seeing all rockets grounded in the Ukraine and Russia as a result of the current climate. Consider the ISS, which is entirely dependent on Earth-based rockets for resupply and personnel rotation.

As it stands, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) ride to space and back on regularly scheduled launches, and each new rocket carried fresh supplies of food and equipment. The Atlas V and Antares rockets, plus critical U.S. spy satellites that provide vital, real time intelligence, are just some of the programs that may be in peril if events deteriorate, or worse yet, spin out of control.

ISSThe threat to intelligence gathering operations would be especially critical, since it would hamper efforts to monitor the crisis. In short, the Crimean confrontation and all the threats and counter threats of armed conflicts and economic sanctions shines a spotlight on US vulnerabilities regarding space exploration, private industry and US national security programs, missions, satellites and rockets.

But the consequences of escalating tensions would hardly be felt by only one side. Despite what some may think, the US, Russian and Ukrainian space programs, assets and booster rockets are inextricably intertwined and interdependent, and all would suffer if anything were to shut it down. For instance, some 15 nations maintain participation and funding to keep the ISS and its programs running.

ISS_crewAnd since the forced retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, America has been dependent on Russia for its human spaceflight capability. ISS missions are most often crewed by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. And under the most recent contract, the US pays Russia $70 million per Soyuz seat, and both they and the Ukraine’s space programs are dependent on this ongoing level of investment.

The fastest and most cost effective path to restore America’s human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit and the ISS is through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) seeking to develop private ‘space taxis’ with Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. But until such time as long-term funding can be guaranteed, the current arrangement will persist.

maven_launchWhen NASA Administrator Chales Bolden was asked about contingencies at a briefing yesterday, March 4, he responded that everything is OK for now:

Right now, everything is normal in our relationship with the Russians. Missions up and down are on target… People lose track of the fact that we have occupied the International Space Station now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has been through multiple international crises… I don’t think it’s an insignificant fact that we are starting to see a number of people with the idea that the International Space Station be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the same time, he urged Congress to fully fund CCP and avoid still more delays:

Let me be clear about one thing. The choice here is between fully funding the request to bring space launches back to the US or continuing millions in subsidies to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama administration chooses investing in America, and we believe Congress will choose this course as well.

spacex-dragon-capsule-grabbed-by-iss-canadarm-640x424At a US Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on Defense, which was held yesterday to address national security issues, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk underscored the crucial differences in availability between the Falcon 9 and Atlas V in this excerpt from his testimony:

In light of Russia’s de facto annexation of the Ukraine’s Crimea region and the formal severing of military ties, the Atlas V cannot possibly be described as providing “assured access to space” for our nation when supply of the main engine depends on President Putin’s permission.

So, continuing operations of the ISS and US National Security are potentially held hostage to the whims of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And given that Russia has threatened to retaliate with sanctions of its own against the West, the likelihood that space exploration will suffer is likely.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????The Crimean crisis is without a doubt the most dangerous East-West conflict since the end of the Cold War. Right now no one knows the future outcome of the crisis in Crimea. Diplomats are talking but some limited military assets on both sides are reportedly on the move today.