There’s a place where the United States and Russia are still getting along swimmingly: About 250 miles above the surface of the Earth, where three Russians, two Americans and an astronaut from Japan are aboard the international space station.
“Everything is nominal right now with our relationship with the Russians,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden during a teleconference Tuesday.
With the space shuttle retired, the U.S. relies on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get to and from the space station. Russia charges about $71 million per seat. There is no other way for American astronauts to get back to Earth.
Tuesday’s teleconference was set up to allow Bolden to discuss the White House’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget request, but he wound up fielding numerous inquiries from reporters about whether the Ukraine crisis has affected NASA’s strategic planning.
No, Bolden said repeatedly. He noted that past flare-ups between the U.S. and Russia have not affected operations in space.
“We have weathered the storm through lots of contingencies here,” Bolden said.
He told a personal story: In 1994 he commanded the first joint U.S.-Russia space shuttle mission. He said that, “because of my training as a Marine,” he wasn’t entirely comfortable at first with the idea of teaming up with the Russians, but then during the planning stages for the mission he got to know Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev and his Russian backup.
Russia, the U.S., Europe, Canada and Japan jointly operate the ISS, which the Obama administration wants to continue funding at least through 2024, a four-year extension. Whether the international partners will extend their participation beyond 2020 is unclear at this point.
After the teleconference, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs e-mailed an elaboration on Bolden’s comments:
“NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have maintained a professional, beneficial, and collegial working relationship through the various ups and downs of the broader U.S.-Russia relationship and we expect that to continue throughout the life of the ISS program and beyond.
“NASA is moving toward awarding contracts this year to private American companies to send our astronauts to the International Space Station, keeping the agency on target to launch American astronauts from the U.S. by 2017 and ending our reliance on Russia to get into space.”
The administration has repeatedly stressed that the “commercial crew” program needs to be fully funded by Congress if the 2017 target is going to be met. But NASA’s budget has been squeezed for several years, having peaked at $18.7 billion in 2010.
Obama’s budget request asks for just under $17.5 billion for NASA in 2015, a decrease of $186 million from what Congress allotted the agency in FY2014.
Bolden said the budget keeps NASA moving full speed ahead: “This budget keeps us on the same, steady path we have been following – a stepping stone approach to send humans to Mars in the 2030’s.”
The administration’s budget would trim $180 billion from the science program. A prominent casualty is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a jumbo jet that will wind up being warehoused unless funding somehow materializes.
The administration wants $133 for the controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which a robotic vehicle would either grab a small asteroid or break a chunk off a bigger one and then haul it back to lunar orbit.
Popular science missions such as Cassini, the probe orbiting Saturn, and Curiosity, the rover on Mars, will stay alive under the president’s budget, and the modest sum of $15 million will go toward early planning for a possible robotic mission to Jupiter’s intriguing moon Europa, which appears to have a subsurface ocean. Engineers think a mission to study Europa would cost upward of $2 billion, but Bolden and his deputies in recent months have said there’s no money in the near future for such big-ticket “Flagship” missions.
Boosters of planetary science were unhappy Tuesday that the overall planetary-science budget request is only $1.28 billion, a modest boost over last year’s budget request but still less than what Congress appropriated for 2014. Advocates have argued that planetary science ought to have a $1.5 billion budget — as it did a few years ago.
“It’s still planinly insufficient to maintain America’s leadership in planetary science,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), who represents Pasadena, home to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.