Monday, 3 March 2014

The Crisis in Ukraine and Canada's Space Program

The Soyuz spacecraft - made in Russia, with some Ukrainian parts. Chris Gainor photo.

The growing crisis caused by the Russian invasion of the Crimea and threats against other parts of Ukraine could have serious implications for the United States civilian space program - and Canada's.

The U.S. and Russia are partners in the International Space Station along with the European Space Agency, Japan and Canada. The station cannot operate properly without U.S. and Russian cooperation because the two countries account for most of the station infrastructure, and both countries are represented on board the station at all times.

While Europe, Japan and private American firms have launched robot vehicles to the station to replenish it, all personnel have been carried to the station on either the U.S. Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz ferry craft. The shuttle program came to an end in the summer of 2011, and since then everyone who flies to and from the station uses Soyuz. 

U.S. astronauts find themselves  in the unhappy position of depending on their former cold war rival to carry them into space, and this will remain the case for the next few years until a new generation of U.S. spacecraft is ready to carry human passengers. 

Even though some members of the U.S. Congress have made noises in the past about no longer paying the Russians for Soyuz, the only alternative is to give up America's massive investment in the ISS. Even if the U.S. decides to continue cooperating on the ISS as if there was no problem with Russia, the Russians have the option of impeding American or other nations' astronaut access to the ISS in response to political or economic actions the American, European, Japanese or Canadian governments take to sanction Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

Moreover, some components of the Soyuz spacecraft and its launch vehicle are made in Ukraine, and the growing breach between Russia and Ukraine could affect production of these vehicles and reduce access to the ISS.

This problem has its roots in the American government's decision to bring the Space Shuttle program to an end before an alternative American spacecraft was available. It has been deepened by the political gridlock in Washington.

Ten years ago, President George W. Bush announced that the shuttle program would be wound down in response to the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew the year before. He announced the beginning of an ambitious program to replace the shuttle with a new generation of spacecraft to carry astronauts to the ISS and eventually to the Moon and Mars. Unfortunately, this new program was never adequately funded.

When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, he instituted a new space policy that called for private contractors to build new spacecraft to carry astronauts into low Earth orbit and the ISS in cooperation with NASA, rather than an old-fashioned program run by NASA as called for by his predecessor. 

But Republicans in Congress, who are officially in favour of private sector solutions to every problem, opposed the Obama policy and continued to insist that NASA continue to run the big government Bush-era space program in the form of the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System, known to its critics as the Senate Launch System. The Republicans have abandoned their free market ideology in space for the simple reason that most members of Congress from states and districts with big NASA facilities and contractors are Republicans, and accepting the Obama policy will cost them votes.

NASA is left trying to support two parallel human space programs at a time when cutbacks to its budget make it difficult for the agency to afford even one such program. The result is that the U.S. human space program is effectively held hostage by the Russian government. Another result is that Canada and other partners in the ISS also face being grounded without the goodwill of Russia.

The game of chicken being played between the Obama administration and the Republican-dominated Congress over space policy has complicated Canada's ability to plan its own space program because Canada's  partnership with NASA is so central to much of its space program.

In 2008 when Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia in the face of worldwide condemnation and threats of sanctions, cooperation in space continued without a pause. One reason was the short duration of that war before a ceasefire took the conflict off the front burner of international concerns. The conflict over Ukraine is much larger and will likely be more difficult to resolve.

In all probability, the cooperation between Russia and other ISS partners will continue for the time being as in the past. But if the crisis over Ukraine results in a serious breach between Russia and other countries, the result could be that American, Canadian, European, Japanese and perhaps even Russian  astronauts could be grounded. This would put the future of the International Space Station in jeopardy and with it, most of the world's human space programs, with the exception of China. 

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