Russia Wins the ‘Space Race’

When the space shuttle Atlantis returns to earth in a few days it will be the culmination of a decades long NASA program that allows Russia to chalk up the Space Race as a win, by default. While important in the Russian psyche, this win may prove to be a mere footnote in the history of U.S.-Russian relations. Russia, then the Soviet Union, was the first to reach space on April 12, 1961, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth in his Vostok spacecraft.

Previously, Russia’s Luna 2 became the first unmanned aircraft to reach the moon in 1959. However, Russia was bested, in embarrassing and televised fashion by the United States, when Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 set down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. He was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 1978. While Gagarin received a hero’s welcome and has had statues dedicated to him, it is Armstrong who was immortalized in the recent Transformers movie.

With the conclusion of the space shuttle program later this month, resulting in a loss of thousands of jobs, Russia now assumes the role as the sole taxi service for remaining American astronauts seeking to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting above the earth.

This does not come without a price for the United States. Until the United States develops an alternative to the retiring space shuttle program, to ferry astronauts and equipment to the ISS, Russia will become very costly since Russia now holds a temporary monopoly on space travel. Russian Federal Space Agency or Roscosmos, Russia’s equivalent to NASA, will ferry Americans to the ISS until 2016. The United States is shelling out $1 billion dollars to Roscosmos for the use of their spacecraft.

However, Roscosmos’ Vladimir Popovkin points out that it will take great pains not to exploit its monopoly for financial gains. “We are not going to play around with prices despite the fact that we have become the exclusive participant in this market and only we have the capability to deliver crews to the ISS,” said Vladimir Popovkin, Roscosmos’ General Director. Soyuz and Progress spacecraft will be Russia’s vehicles used during this period.

The United States and Russia have tussled back and forth for decades over supremacy of space but with the retirement of the space shuttle program Russia now holds the upper hand in global superpowers and the supremacy in space. Even before the ISS got off the ground, Russia was the first to launch its version of a space station in 1971, the Salyut 1. As is often the case with Soviet technology, it was initially unmanned and a Soyuz rocket was launched with its crew onboard but was unable to dock. A second crew was launched and did successfully dock and stayed for 23 days. Unfortunately, upon reentry, the crew of three was killed due to a technical failure.

Soviet space technologies were also dual purpose; scientific and military. After a couple of other space station variations all based on the Salyut design, the Soviets launched Salyut 3. Launched on June 25, 1974 it was armed with a Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 aircraft cannon and was used successfully in destroying a target satellite. It fell to earth on January 24, 1975. Following the relatively successful Salyut program the Soviets launched the Mir space station, which operated from 1986 to 2001. Mir was preceded by Skylab, which the U.S. operated from 1973 to 1979.

With space exploration becoming exceedingly expensive as a unilateral effort, a number of space agencies from Russia, the United States, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency (ESA) began the ISS in 1998 and it is expected to completed by 2012 with significant help from Russian spacecraft because the shuttle program has been canceled.

However beneficial the ISS is to science and research, the costs of the ISS have been scrutinized and in turn criticized. With the station potentially to be completed by next year and decommissioned by as early as 2016, some question the wisdom of spending nearly $100 billion on what is ostensibly a big science fair project. “In the first quarter of 2016, we’ll prep and de-orbit the spacecraft,” said NASA’s Michael T. Suffredini. In other words, the ISS will fall into the Pacific Ocean or what is left of it after it burns up in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida argues, among others, costs already committed insure that the ISS should be kept in space for perhaps a decade longer. “If we’ve spent a hundred billion dollars, I don’t think we want to shut it down in 2015,” said the Senator, who has an important constituency of NASA employees in Florida.

With the space station nearing completion and Russia’s role proving to be invaluable in its completion by ferrying astronauts and equipment, the larger question remains of what purpose there is in space exploration. If ISS decision makers have any intention of keeping it in space longer than 2016, it should be utilized for more than figuring out the growth rate of plants or conducting science experiments which can be conducted at a significantly cheaper price here on earth.

There is an apparent lack of appetite in the U.S. Congress for funneling billions of dollars into another space vehicle if its only mission will be to ferry men and equipment to and from the space station. Perhaps, the U.S. should allow Russia this win of funneling men and equipment to and from the ISS for another decade or more and cede space exploration to the Russians. Clearly the U.S. has other concerns than going to the Moon again or potentially Mars. It is highly doubtful that if U.S. policymakers cannot agree on raising the U.S. debt ceiling limit they will hardly agree to pay for a sequel to the space shuttle that will cost considerably more.