In a discussion I seem to keep having these days when I mention that human spaceflight is actually a valuable endeavour for a nation, I’m usually met with a look of incongruity. Then the question: What has space exploration ever done for us?
I used to get a little angry about this question (of course space exploration is important!) but in actuality, I have to explain the answer because it isn’t necessarily obvious. By pushing into space, a nation can enrich its technology, improve education, boost employment in skilled areas, thereby improving the economy and generally improving a nation’s standing in the world. That’s the eco-friendly version. There are other applications such as military prowess, strategic advantage and business potential. Unfortunately, doing bold things in space requires money, and to get money you need to convince the government that it’s worth spending money on. Last time I looked, there’s no Space Race 2 going on, so we can’t rely on politics to see the necessity of space flight.
However, the US has invested billions of dollars in the exploration of space, and although NASA is a money-hungry entity, it produces results and has shaped the world as we know it. Granted, the US space agency was built on Cold War ideals and was hinged around the sole purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, but modern NASA is still relevant, if not more so.
Rockets and healthcare
From space, and back to Earth with a bump.
I watched a series of fascinating videos of the protests that went on in Washington D.C. on September 12th concerning President Obama’s healthcare reform plans. The Tea Party (not Twinnings, or Boston… some other tea party that didn’t have a lot of tea) exploded to life to the sound of tens of thousands of voices protesting “socialist” healthcare. Apparently, a nationalized healthcare system is a bad thing. The arguments against Obama’s plan seem rather outlandish to me, and a hardcore group of protesters (not all the protesters, just a few apparently missing a sanity gene) accused the US President of being a “communist,” “socialist,” “Marxist” and (most shockingly) a “Nazi.”
So, here we are, with a field-full of rabid protesters that have been whipped up into a frenzy by the media, special interest groups and political antagonizers. These geniuses see a nationalized healthcare system as a socialist agenda. Of course, this means communism is just down the garden path. Last time I looked, the UK wasn’t a communist state, and although the British National Health Service (NHS) isn’t perfect, it’s a damn sight better than the US health insurance insanity.
The point I’m trying to make is that tens of thousands of people descended on the US capital to protest a healthcare bill that actually seems quite sensible. Unfortunately, this huge group believe this bill is actually a government conspiracy intended to dupe the public, bankrupt the country and control the nation.
Now let’s wind back the clock to last year, when it was announced NASA would be shedding thousands of jobs when the space shuttle is retired. More recently, a task group was formed to discuss NASA’s options considering its budget isn’t going to grow any time soon — unfortunately, Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration” can’t be done because the Constellation Program will cost too much. Now the Augustine Commission has set out some plans that may curtail NASA’s big projects, possibly even cancelling Constellation.
To top all this off, there is a 5-year gap (minimum) between the shuttle being retired and Constellation taking over (if that even happens), that means there will be at least 5 years the US will have without a manned launch vehicle. Yes, the US has gone through this before (between the end of the Apollo Program in 1970 and the Shuttle Program in 1982), but this time we could lose access to the space station, a $100 billion project the US is heavily invested in.
Fortunately, US companies are seeing business opportunities in space, so given enough funding, start-ups like SpaceX could start ferrying NASA astronauts into LEO sooner rather than later. There are also other nations involved in the space station and they can give us a lift into space. Unfortunately, apart from the Shuttle, there’s only one other spacecraft that’s human-rated in the world. That’s Soyuz.
Soyuz is great, it’s a sturdy vehicle and it’s received little complaint from the astronauts and cosmonauts that have been ferried around in it (well, most of the time). The Russian space agency will basically be offering NASA taxi rides into space so the US can still use the International Space Station.
The cost? $50 million per seat.
Wow, what a bargain. The space shuttle costs the best part of a billion dollars to launch every time. Compare that with $50 million, it almost seems as if this 5-year gap is a good thing. It might save NASA some money!
However, in the process of retiring the shuttle, skilled US jobs will be lost. Even the transition from the shuttle program to Constellation will cause a re-shuffle of NASA employees. Last year, Senator Bill Nelson pointed out that shedding jobs from the US space agency, only to rely on a Russian launch vehicle, will have the effect of generating jobs in Russia. This might seem like an over-exaggeration, but it may indirectly be the case.
The added concern is that the $50 million value per Soyuz seat could increase. After all, US-Russia relations aren’t exactly toasty, the Russian space agency could set its own price for taxi rides to the space station. NASA money will be spent, not on advancing US spaceflight capabilities, but on another nation’s spaceflight capabilities. Sure, NASA and Roscosmos are co-operating now, but both are government-backed entities and that co-operation could turn south during the next East-West political upset.
In summary, until US spaceflight companies develop human-rated space vehicles, or until the Constellation Project (or equivalent) is finished, the US will be wholly dependent on Russia for human spaceflight. NASA will be paying a premium rate for that privilege.
So when I see thousands of individuals crowding on Capitol Hill, angrily protesting about the idiotic belief that the President of the USA is on the verge of creating a communist state, I think about NASA and the fact that the US space agency has been forced to pay for seats on board a spaceship maintained by an ex-communist state the US government is having problems with.
Where are the protests now?