To say that the United States and Russia aren’t on the best terms right now is to not say anything at all. Still, U.S. astronauts still need access to the International Space Station.
Congressional funding for the ISS programme is lacking. Private vessels being developed by Boeing and SpaceX in the U.S. are not yet available for manned missions. This leaves no other option for NASA but to rely on the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, to continue ferrying astronauts to the ISS until at least 2019.
NASA’s own Space Shuttle program ended in 2012. No one was quick enough to fill in the immediate gap.
Of course SpaceX in particular is aiming to revolutionise the entire launch market – while development of the Russian space programme has hit a number of rough patches, including funding issues for the new Vostok Cosmodrome, and spotty rocket performance on unmanned missions.
Still, the new deal between NASA and Roscosmos shows how innovation in the space industry must be carefully paced, especially when it comes to manned spaceflight.
The entire industry is risk-averse – it becomes astronomically (excuse our bad pun) risk averse wherein rockets carrying human crews are concerned. This is exactly why Roscosmos is making money even as Washington is slapping Moscow with sanctions over Russia’s alleged involvement in armed conflict in the east of Ukraine (a charge Russia vehemently denies).
NASA can’t simply put its astronauts on a SpaceX rocket – the technology doesn’t have the track record needed for anyone to greenlight that kind of mission.
Politically, the situation is awkward for both the United States and Russia. U.S. politicians are expected to be tough on Russia with regard to Ukraine, and as for Russia, anti-American sentiment there has reached a fever pitch that hasn’t been seen since the Soviet days.
In that sense, the NASA-Roscosmos deal isn’t just an illustration of how badly the United States needs to revamp its space programme. It also shows that some human endeavours, such as the ISS, must remain beyond the reach of politics in order to continue to function, especially during lean years.