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Russia to the rescue

March 13, 2012

Facing delays with its planned commercial spacecraft, NASA now says it may need to rely longer on Russian launching capacity. But given Russia's recent setbacks, should the US be concerned?

Blick über obere Hälfte der Erdkugel auf den Mond, das Bild kombiniert Photographien von Erde und Mond. Beide wurden 1992 von der Galileo-Mission auf ihrem Weg zum Jupiter aufgenommen. 05.05.1992 Copyright NASA
The US says it will need to rely further on RoscosmosImage: NASA

Last year, NASA, the American space agency, gambled on having a commercial spaceflight industry by 2016 to continue where its government-run space shuttle program left off.

But the agency appears to have already lost that bet, judging by the budget constraints and other issues that have delayed the development of its planned commercial launching systems

Now NASA is gambling again. This time, it hopes Russian spacecraft alone will be able to keep US astronauts traveling in space until its new commercial space taxis arrive.

NASA chief Charles Bolden informed the House of Representatives Science Committee last week that the space agency has drafted backup plans to extend the use of Russian spacecraft for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by at least one year.

The move comes, however, amid numerous setbacks that have beset Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, in recent months.

epa03058013 (FILE) A file handout image released by Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos on 11 November 2011 shows Russian specialists preparing Phobos-Grunt probe for launch from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, 02 November 2011. A failed Russian Mars probe weighing 13.5 tons is most likely to strike earth somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean near Argentina, officials at Russia's national space agency Roscosmos said on 13 January 2012. The statement published on the agency website updated a 12 January prediction that the Phobos-Grunt (or Fobos-Grunt) probe would reach the earthâ€_s surface in the Indian Ocean somewhere near the island nation Madagascar on 15 January. The Russian probe has been in a decaying orbit since its interplanetary engines failed to ignite following a 09 November launch. An accurate estimate of precisely when and where the spaceship would hit earth is practically impossible, Roscosmos has said. Vladimir Sychov, a researcher working for Russiaâ€_s Institute for Biomedical Problems, told the Interfax news agency most of the spaceship was likely to be burnt up re-entering the earth's atmosphere, but that some 200 kilogrammes of debris could possibly reach the earthâ€_s surface. EPA/ROSCOSMOS / HANDOUT *** Local Caption *** 00000403000238 +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The Russian Phobos-Grunt satellite failed to reach its orbit in November 2011Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Russian setbacks

In February, for instance, a manned mission of the Russian Soyuz capsule bound for the ISS was delayed until May due to faulty test procedures. And previously, the Phobos-Grunt probe failed, making a growing number of experts worry about the reliability of Russia's space program.

"It is very concerning," Peter Hulsroj, director of the European Space Policy Institute (ESPI), told DW. He added that the United States and other ISS members, including Russia, "now only have one system at their disposal."

However, some Russian experts appear less concerned.

"The level of reliability of the Soyuz TMA spacecraft and the Soyuz FG rocket is high enough to serve their purpose of safe crew transfer to ISS and back," wrote Igor Lissov, a Russian aerospace analyst, in an e-mail to DW. "We are not phasing out these capabilities without immediate replacement as the US did."

In hindsight, Hulsroj views the push for commercial launching capacity as a "calculated bet" that he would have made differently.

"I would have been conservative and made sure that the space shuttle fleet could continue for a longer period of time," he told DW.

NASA's gamble, Hulsroj argues, was driven by the need to reduce the "exorbitant costs" of the shuttle program with the help of a competitive commercial spaceflight industry.

The US space agency's strategy is to partner with commercial companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, to develop private spacecraft for rotating crews to and from the space station. The partnership, the agency claims, will free up government funding to pay for ambitious exploration mission to asteroids and other deep-space destinations.

This image provided by NASA shows layers of Earth's atmosphere, brightly colored as the sun rises over central Asia, and Polar Mesospheric Clouds (also known as noctilucent clouds) are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crewmember on the International Space Station Tuesday July 22, 2008. (AP Photo/NASA)
NASA's chief said the US may need to rely on Roscosmos until at least 2017Image: AP/DW

Symbolic mission

The commercial US space taxis were originally envisioned to be in service in 2016, but that now seems unlikely.

In his written testimony to Congress, however, Bolden said NASA will now need " to purchase crew transportation capabilities into 2017." The agency, he added, will pay the Russians $450 million a year "for every year that we don't have an American capability to put humans into low-Earth orbit."

NASA leadership is also considering contracting the Russians for help to transport future cargo delivers to the space station. In the past, the American space agency has used Russian spacecraft to help with cargo deliveries.

Meanwhile, SpaceX's Dragon demonstration flight is set to blast off as early as April.

In a speech delivered last month at a Federal Aviation Administration commercial space conference, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, underscored the mission's symbolic influence. The SpaceX flight, he noted, is slated at a time when Congress prepares to write a budget that could spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on commercial spaceflight in the coming years.

"I want to see that SpaceX mission succeed, rendezvous and dock," Nelson said. "If that occurs in April, it is going to be at the right time because that's about the time the decisions are starting to be made with regard to the appropriations."

Author: John Blau
Editor: Cyrus Farivar