One Way Up: U.S. Space Plan Relies on Russia

An image of Peggy A. Whitson, an American astronaut at the International Space Station, in April at mission control in Korolev, outside Moscow. A plan to suspend NASA’s capacity to fly astronauts into space has set off a geopolitical controversy.

This place was once no place, a secret military base northeast of Moscow that did not show up on maps. The Soviet Union trained its astronauts here to fight on the highest battlefield of the cold war: space. Skip to next paragraph The Long Countdown NASA’s Five-Year Hiatus This is the first in an occasional series examining the five years between when NASA shuts down the space shuttle program and when the next generation of American spacecraft is scheduled to arrive. Related Times Topics: National Aeronautics and Space Administration Times Topics: International Space Cooperation and Ventures Enlarge This Image James Hill for The New York Times American and Russian astronauts training in June in Star City, Russia, to go to the International Space Station. Readers’ Comments Readers shared their thoughts on this article. Read All Comments (126) » Yet these days, Star City is the place for America’s hard-won orbital partnership with Russia, where astronauts train to fly aboard Soyuz spacecraft. And in two years Star City will be the only place to send astronauts from any nation to the International Space Station. The gap is coming: from 2010, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shuts down the space shuttle program, to 2015, when the next generation of American spacecraft is scheduled to arrive, NASA expects to have no human flight capacity and will depend on Russia to get to the $100 billion station, buying seats on Soyuz craft as space tourists do. As NASA celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, the time lag in the Bush administration’s plan to retire the nation’s three space shuttles and work on a return to the Moon has thrust the United States space program squarely into national politics and geopolitical controversy. Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have denounced the gap and promoted their commitment to the space program while on trips to Florida, where thousands of workers will lose their jobs when the shuttle program ends. And antagonism between the United States and Russia, over the conflict in Georgia and other issues, is clouding the future of a 15-year partnership in space, precisely when NASA will be more reliant on Russia than ever before. The administrator of NASA, Michael D. Griffin, has called the situation “unseemly in the extreme.” In an e-mail message he sent to his top advisers in August, Dr. Griffin wrote that “events have unfolded in a way that makes it clear how unwise it was for the U.S. to adopt a policy of deliberate dependence on another power.” Dr. Griffin is worried enough that he ordered his staff to explore flying the aging shuttles past 2010. He did so, he said in an interview last month, “about five minutes after the Russians invaded Georgia, because I could see this coming.” But he warned that any extension would be costly and could further delay NASA’s return to the Moon and threaten America’s role as the leading space power. China’s Gains Last month, China made the third successful launching of its Shenzhou VII spacecraft and the first spacewalk by one of its astronauts. The Chinese government has said it hopes to establish a space station and eventually make a Moon landing. The United States plans to return to the Moon by 2020 at the earliest; some observers believe China might get there first. The interruption in American-controlled access to space rankles some in Washington, including Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a leading proponent of the space program. In an interview, Mr. Nelson said it was “inexcusable” for the country’s space program to be put in a position of dependence on such a politically volatile partner. “We’ve got a Russian prime minister who believes he’s czar,” he said of Vladimir Putin, referring to Russia’s military action in Georgia. The United States has had periods in which its astronauts could not reach space: from the end of the Apollo program in 1975 to the beginning of shuttle flights in 1981, and for more than two years after the loss of the shuttles Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. But the coming interval could be the longest if the rollout of NASA’s new rockets is significantly delayed. Even though the outlines of the gap have been known since soon after Dr. Griffin began running the agency in 2005, Cmdr. Scott J. Kelly of the Navy, an astronaut who has made two trips to orbit, warned in April that the prospect of a United States that could not send humans into space on its own rockets would come as a shock. “A large part of the American public is going to be surprised,” he said, adding that people would cry, “Who let that happen?”


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