The world's attention is fixed on the events in Ukraine, as we wait to see the extent of Russia's ambitions in Crimea.
Within the space advocacy community, questions are being raised about how this affects the International Space Station, and NASA's ability to transport crews to and from space.
Inevitably we will hear people blaming President Obama for cancelling the Shuttle, for placing U.S. astronauts on Russian ships, and the usual blather about not having a standalone U.S. station.
So let's review the facts.
U.S. cooperation with Russia in space goes back to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, when three American astronauts rendezvoused with two Soviet cosmonauts in low Earth orbit. The U.S. and the USSR signed in May 1972 the Agreement Concerning Cooperation in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. It called for both nations to cooperate in space, to exchange information, and to conduct a joint rendezvous in 1975.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Russia in 1992-1993 entered into several agreements that formed the foundation for today's joint space exploration programs. On June 17, 1992, the first Bush administration issued a Joint Statement on Cooperation in Space that “provides a broad framework for NASA and the Russian Space Agency to map out new projects in a full range of fields: space science, space exploration, space applications and the use of space technology.”
In late 1993, the U.S. formally invited Russia to joint its space station partnership. Russia brought to the partnership three decades of space station experience, from Salyut 1 in 1971 through Mir which operated from 1986 until it deorbited in 2001. NASA would use Mir to dock the Shuttle as a training experience for ISS construction and operation.
In 1998, the ISS partners signed their agreements with NASA, which is the managing partner.
Click here to read the NASA - Russian Space Agency agreement. It should be noted that Article 4.1 states, “ NASA and RSA will each assure access to and use of their Space Station flight elements.”
The current “gap” relying on Russian access to ISS was decided in early 2004, after the Columbia accident. On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush gave his Vision for Space Exploration speech, in response to the findings by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Bush announced that Shuttle would fly again, but only to complete ISS construction. Regular crew rotations would move over to the Russian Soyuz; in fact, Soyuz was already being used after the February 1, 2003 accident because no other vehicle was available.
Bush proposed a new program that came to be known as Constellation. Two weeks later, when NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe presented the Vision to the Senate Science Committee, he showed a chart that came to be known as the Vision Sand Chart.
The Vision Sand Chart presented to Congress on January 28, 2004.
The chart showed that the Administration intended to retire Shuttle in Fiscal Year 2010, and would fly the Crew Exploration Vehicle in FY14.
The four-year gap was there for all to see.
No one questioned it.
The ISS was completed in May 2011. After one additional cargo delivery flight added by the Obama administration, the Shuttle retired in July 2011.
When President Obama took office in January 2009, Constellation was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
A series of audits warned of Constellation's problems, but most telling was an August 2009 Government Accountability Office audit titled, “Constellation Cost and Schedule Will Remain Uncertain Until a Sound Business Case is Established.”
In September 2009, Congress was warned by the chair of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee that Constellation was unsustainable. The Ares I being designed to launch ISS crews wouldn't be ready until at least 2017, extending the gap another three years from the original four-year gap.
Again, Congress did nothing.
In early 2010, the Obama administration released its proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2011. It proposed cancelling Constellation, and replacing it with a new commercial crew program similar to the successful commercial cargo program begun in 2005 by the Bush administration.
Congress hated it, because Constellation delivered billions of dollars annually to the states and districts of the members of the Senate and House space subcommittees.
In a grand bargain, Congress reluctantly cancelled Constellation, but foisted upon NASA another pork project called the Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics, to this day SLS has no mission or destination. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the SLS architects, dubbed it “the Monster Rocket”; along with several colleagues, he bragged about how many jobs it would protect. No one really had much to say about what it would do.
Congress mandated that NASA spend about $3 billion a year over the next five years on SLS and the Orion crew capsule, a holdover from Constellation. Commercial crew, meanwhile, was starved by Congress, which cut its funding by 62% over the last three fiscal years from the Obama administration's funding requests. For Fiscal Year 2014, it was cut 15%.
Time and again, NASA warned Congress that cutting commercial crew in favor of SLS only extended reliance on Russia.
Congress didn't care.
Click the arrow to watch the March 7, 2012 House space subcommittee hearing.
Take for example this hearing two years ago by the House space subcommittee on NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget. Members of both parties blast commercial crew, while insisting that SLS is a “backup” in case commercial crew fails.
The notion is nonsensical, because SLS is scheduled for its first uncrewed test flight at the end of 2017. It would have to carry tons of ballast to slow it down enough to reach ISS. SLS is considered to be so expensive a design that NASA could afford to build only one every two to four years.
Commercial cargo, meanwhile, is operational. The SpaceX Dragon, designed with the eventual goal of using it for people, has already flown one demonstration flight and two official ISS deliveries. Its next launch is scheduled for March 16. Two abort tests for eventual crew flights are scheduled for later this year.
If Congress had fully funded commercial crew as requested by the Obama administration, it's likely we'd see the first crewed test flights in late 2014 or 2015. NASA estimates that, due to the cuts, it won't be until 2017, although SpaceX founder Elon Musk told CBS News last month he hopes to have his first crewed flight in two years.
Hopefully cooler heads prevail and the ISS will be unaffected by the current political crisis. But if Vladimir Putin decides to restrict U.S. access to the ISS, point the finger of guilt directly at Congress.
They were told so.