In the early hours of Sunday morning (Pacific Time), a Russian cosmonaut, NASA astronaut and a European Space Agency astronaut returned to Earth after a 6-month stay on the International Space Station (ISS). Oleg Kononenko, Don Pettit and Andre Kuipers landed safely on the Kazakhstan steppes after the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft fired its soft landing rockets, blasting a cloud of dust into the air. But before touchdown and after the violence of reentry, NASA photographer Bill Ingalls was able to photograph this beautiful aerial view of the Soyuz and deployed parachute above the clouds. What a ride that must have been.
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.
When I came across this image in NASA’s Human Space Flight gallery, I stopped. I was looking for the “perfect” shuttle image during the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station earlier this month, but I got sucked into browsing through the hundreds of EVA photographs NASA has stockpiled in their archives.
This particular scene was taken by NASA astronaut John “Danny” Olivas when he was out on a spacewalk installing a new Ammonia Tank Assembly. The EVA was over six hours long and Olivas was able to do some digital photography in that time. This picture shows his spacesuit helmet visor, with a reflection of the camera at arms length below.
Also visible in the reflections in the visor are various components of the station and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang, mission specialist, anchored to a Canadarm2 mobile foot restraint. —NASA
The reflection captures so much detail. The curvature of the Earth can be seen in the distance, with space station solar arrays jutting in front. Even the two docked Soyuz vehicles (TMA-14 and TMA-15) are in shot. To top it all off, ESA astronaut Fuglesang is dangling in the vacuum of space attached to a robotic arm.
Let’s face it, Soyuz is getting old. It’s not that the spaceships themselves are getting rickety, there have been many incarnations, but the original Soyuz design was first conceived in 1966, so the Russian space agency (Roscosmos) is feeling it’s about time for a change. Soyuz has carried out the most manned missions into space out of any other space flight system (over 100 since the 1960s), so Russia has every right to be proud of its achievements.
So what system does Roscosmos want to replace Soyuz with? Perhaps a bigger version of Soyuz? Perhaps a revolutionary winged spaceplane? Nope. They are currently looking at plans for a Soyuz-esque capsule that will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere much like before. But due to political pressure (spawning the need to move Roscosmos’ operations out of Kazakhstan), engineers must find a way to land the return vehicle in a minuscule area. Measuring only 2×5 km (yes, that’s a tight 10 km2), the landing strip will be as unforgiving as the new method to land the descent vehicle.
There will be no parachutes and no wings; the new concept will use a rocket-powered landing system alone, creating the first ever rocket-powered Earth-lander. If you thought that was a rather extreme design specification, you might be surprised to hear that engineers want to start firing these landing thrusters when the descent module is only 600-800 metres from the ground… Continue reading “The Russian Rocket-Powered Lander. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?”
In the last 12 months, we’ve seen some of the most astonishing advances in space exploration technology. From SpaceX launching the first commercial rocket into Earth orbit to seeing the first Chinese spacewalk, all of our endeavours in space will help develop the future of manned spaceflight. Even the recently published Time Magazine Top 10 Scientific Discoveries list space and physics endeavours high up the list.
However, there is a flip-side to this coin. Fortunately there has been no loss of life through manned spaceflight in 2008, but we’ve had our fair share of mishaps. Some have been expensive, some just embarrassing, but each one has taught us what to do, and what not to do, as we begin to venture further from the protective atmosphere of Earth. So, to recognise our mistakes, and move on from them, here are the Top 5 Space Exploration mishaps of 2008… Continue reading “Top 5 Space Exploration Mishaps of 2008”