By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008
Tomorrow night, a European spacecraft is scheduled to blast off from French Guiana on its maiden voyage to the international space station, giving NASA and the world a new way to reach the orbiting laboratory.
For NASA, however, the launch of the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) also highlights a stark reality: In 2 1/2 years, just as the station gets fully assembled, the United States will no longer have any spacecraft of its own capable of carrying astronauts and cargo to the station, in which roughly $100 billion is being invested. The three space shuttles will be retired by then, because of their high cost and questionable safety, and NASA will have nothing ready to replace them until 2015 at the earliest.
For five years or more, the United States will be dependent on the technology of others to reach the station, which American taxpayers largely paid for. To complicate things further, the only nation now capable of flying humans to the station is Russia, giving it a strong bargaining position to decide what it wants to charge for the flights at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are becoming increasingly testy.
In addition, some fear the price will be paid not only in billions of dollars but also in lost American prestige and lost leverage on the Russians when it comes to issues such as aiding Iran with its nuclear program.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin calls the situation his "greatest regret and greatest concern." For most of the five-year gap, he said, "we will be largely dependent on the Russians, and that is terrible place for the United States to be. I'm worried, and many others are worried."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees NASA, went further. "This is a very serious betrayal of American interests," he said. "This will be the first time since Sputnik when the United States will not have a significant space superiority. I remain dumbfounded that we've allowed this serious threat to our national security to develop."
The White House, Congress and the space community have known for years that the gap was looming, but there were always other priorities.
Those most involved with the issue say that its seriousness will become more glaring this summer, when negotiations with Russia begin and Congress is likely to debate whether to grant a waiver to the law that prohibits certain kinds of commerce with nations that support the Iranian or North Korean nuclear program.
Griffin has testified that while the waiver is essential, it is "unseemly, simply unseemly, for the United States -- the world's leading power and leading space power -- to be reduced to purchasing services like this. It affects, in my view, how we are seen in the world, and not for the better."
NASA's budget calls for spending $2.6 billion for transportation to the space station between fiscal 2009 and 2013. As it stands now, much of that would go to the Russians.
With that prospect ahead, Griffin told Nelson's committee last week that he is working with the fledgling private rocket company SpaceX to speed its efforts to build a private spacecraft that can take over some of the work of ferrying astronauts into space. Both Nelson and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) had recommended that NASA formally push ahead with that effort.
But SpaceX, while eager to do the work, has not successfully orbited even a cargo spacecraft, let alone one designed to the much higher standards needed for human flight. Nonetheless, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a telephone interview that his company might have a manned spacecraft capability by the end of 2011 if NASA exercises its option under a 2006 agreement to provide cargo service. With that go-ahead, SpaceX would put its manned rocket program into high gear, he said.
"Is there a risk that we won't succeed? Yes, there is," said Musk, co-founder of the PayPal online payment system. "But if the United States doesn't provide any competition to the Russians, then they have a monopoly on crew transport to the station and they can dictate their terms. Do taxpayers really want all that money to go to Russia, rather than to an American company with American workers?"
In his testimony, Griffin said he is inclined to exercise the human spaceflight option, but he also said he very much doubts that SpaceX will have a spacecraft ready for astronauts by 2012.
The gap in American capability to reach the space station is the result of factors including the 2003 breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, the subsequent decision to retire the three remaining shuttles by September 2010 and the lack of additional funds to quickly build a replacement.
NASA has let contracts to design and test a new-generation rocket and crew capsule, but it has had to go slowly because of the high cost of operating the shuttles, which are the only spacecraft able to carry large components to the still-incomplete space station. Griffin has testified that the replacement spacecraft could be ready in 2013 rather than 2015 if the agency had an additional $2 billion, but the administration has not asked for the funding.
Last year, the White House opposed a bill passed by the Senate to give NASA an additional $1 billion to make up for some of the costs incurred after Columbia broke apart -- a step similar to one taken after the Challenger disaster in 1986.
"What we have here is an agency that has been given a lot to do but has been starved for funds," Nelson said. "I think the gap is largely due to the administration's refusal to give NASA the funds it needs. And now we'll be forced to give billions to the Russians because we didn't spend millions before. It's the worst of all worlds."
Griffin, a strong advocate for manned spaceflight and a loyal member of the administration, said that past Congresses and administrations let the manned space program atrophy and that it took President Bush's 2004 "vision" for human travel to the moon and Mars to rejuvenate the program.
Still, many see Bush as having limited interest in space. Not only have NASA budgets remained tight, but Bush never visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston during his six years as governor of Texas, and as president he visited once, for a memorial service for the lost Columbia astronauts.
The European spacecraft scheduled for launch tomorrow night is the first of six cargo-carrying flights by Arianespace, a public-private company, in exchange for NASA ferrying a large European lab to the station on the shuttle. Chairman and chief executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in an interview last week that the company would like to play a larger role in supplying the space station, but it is waiting for its first successful launch before pressing its case.
The European Union is scheduled to decide in November whether to enter the field of human spaceflight, potentially joining the club that so far includes only the United States, Russia and China.
Le Gall acknowledged that the ATV -- which is the size of a London double-decker bus -- is now more expensive to build and operate than its Russian competitors, but he said that may change if Russia becomes the sole carrier. Nonetheless, the Europeans face a number of obstacles in selling their space transport services to NASA, including buy-American provisions that favor homegrown companies such as SpaceX.
"We believe we can be an important part of the solution for the space station and counterbalance to the Russians, if we are given a chance," Le Gall said.
Despite the broad concern over NASA's future dependence on Russia, Griffin said the agency's experience with its most important space station partner has been good. The Russians helped astronauts stranded on the space station after the Columbia breakup, and they have continued to provide crew and cargo transport services -- currently as part of a $780 million, multiyear contract.
Griffin also said a new deal with the Russians has to be signed by early next year. The Russians, he said, need a three-year lead time to build a sufficient quantity of their expendable, but very dependable, Soyuz and Progress spacecraft.