Thursday, April 03, 2014

What is Plan B?


I imagine most of you missed this story:
NASA plans to cease most work with the Russian Federal Space Agency amid growing tensions concerning the Ukrainian crisis, a spokesperson confirmed with a statement to Universe Today Wednesday evening (April 2).
It crept by in one of those bottom-of-the-screen things on one of the news channels when I just happened to be watching. Amid stories on the missing Flight 370 (now several weeks old), the mudslide in Washington, the earthquake off the coast of Chile, and the shooting at Fort Hood, it didn't stand a chance, but a chill ran up my spine when I saw it. Because we still have men in space aboard the International Space Station.

NASA did add this statement:
NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station.
But can we rely on that when politics is involved?

I grew up during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was our arch-enemy. In school we had bomb drills where we marched into the halls, sat cross-legged on the floor, and covered our heads with our hands. (As if that would protect us when a nuclear bomb fell.) I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was sure an unscheduled drill was the real thing. So I don't trust Russia much.

My distrust was reinforced by the jingoistic display at the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics this year. In my mind, there was something "off" about a celebration of international cooperation and competition starting off with the glorious history of Mother Russia. In retrospect, that was probably a part of the plan to invade Crimea and attempt to annex Ukraine.

I was never in favor of discontinuing the Space Shuttle before a new space vehicle was in place. It seemed like throwing the lifeboats off the Titanic because brand new ones would be coming along in a few years. If the companies we were counting on to build them would deliver. Being private companies, they could always change their mind if the venture proved not to be profitable. So we made the foolish decision to rely on our good friends the Russians to take care of any need to carry us back and forth into space, when we should be self-reliant.

Because, you know, stuff happens.


The Challenger Disaster was one reason we backed off in our exploration of space. Mostly we lost our nerve, our longing for adventure, "To boldly go where no man has gone before."

So what happens if the political situation over Ukraine escalates? Isn't it possible the Russians would hold the astronauts on the ISS hostage? What do we do then?

Scenes from Apollo 13 keep playing themselves over in my mind. That was as near to a disaster as our space program could possibly get. Due to ingenuity, grit, and determination, it turned into a triumph. It's the kind of story Americans love. It's about pulling victory from the jaws of defeat.

I'm also thinking of another Tom Hanks movie, Captain Phillips, probably because I recently saw it on DVD. This is based on the true story of the hijacking of an American merchant ship by Somali pirates. The cavalry comes to the rescue via the U.S. Navy in the form of the USS Bainbridge, the USS Halyburton, the USS Boxer, and S.E.A.L. Team Six flying in on a C-130.

When it comes to the ISS, we don't have a C-130 to deliver S.E.A.L. Team Six. We don't have a ship. We're potentially relying on the Somali pirates to take us there.

If all goes as planned (and when was the last time that happened?), the next possible launch of a spacecraft from U.S. soil will be 2017.

2017

It's all up to Congress. They have to pass adequate funding to make sure this happens. With what's gone on over the past few years, I'm not optimistic. Maybe it's time we stopped thinking about our petty individual wants, and started thinking about our country.

Photo Credits:
International Space Station: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/gallery/images/station/issartwork/html/jsc2006e43519.html
Challenger Disaster: http://duartes.org/gustavo/blog/post/richard-feynman-challenger-disaster-software-engineering/
Post a Comment