Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Russian Failure

Sen John Glenn (ret) recently made a very well written, very in-depth statement about space policy. Compared to what other retired astronauts have been saying or suggesting, Glenn sounds outright prescient. I would like to address just one part of Glenn's statement.

Russian Failure: And what happens if there is a failure of the usually reliable Soyuz? Just a couple of years ago, they had two reentry mishaps that took them over normal G limits and some 400 miles from their intended landing point. A grounded Soyuz would leave us with no access to the ISS. I presume the crew on board would have to come down by the so-called "lifeboat" Soyuz currently docked at the ISS. With no access, could the station even be abandoned, eventually to reenter the atmosphere in uncontrolled pieces, landing wherever?

I find this very poor thought out and, compared to the rest of the statement, that is strange. As Glenn says earlier "The Shuttle first flew in late 1981 with its greatly expanded research and heavy lift capability (e.g., Hubble), but with a flight duration limit of 14 days." So I can't understand how Glenn can honestly suggest that the Shuttle should be extended just in case of Soyuz-denial.

I have heard many Senators, commentators, and people who I think are smart and honest, say that being dependent on Soyuz is a threat to the US national security. The theory is that Russia could deny access to the ISS if the US doesn't bend on important national security issues. Ignoring the fact that this is a fear tactic pulled straight out of the 1960s, does it actually make sense?

Imagine the US was no longer able to buy seats on the Soyuz for whatever reason, be it political or safety as Glenn suggests. Imagine that the Shuttle was still flying too. Sure, the US would have "access" to the ISS via the Shuttle - for a maximum of 10 days at a time. It takes 2 days to get to the station and 2 days to get home and, as Glenn says, there's a limit of 14 days.

However, the ISS requires a permanent human presence to keep running. Since late 2000 there has always been a cosmonaut and an astronaut on the ISS. They spend most their time doing maintenance tasks to keep the station flying. Without a permanent human presence the ISS will stop working, become uninhabitable, and deorbit into the ocean - just like MIR did when it was abandoned.

The Shuttle simply cannot be used to rotate crews to the ISS as it is unable to stay at the station and act as a lifeboat for long duration crews. Perhaps the in-development Orion Crew Rescue Vehicle may actually make sense if Shuttle extension was to go ahead, as it would address the lifeboat issue. Without it, the US will remain dependent on the Soyuz for lifeboat use and that doesn't make sense from either a political or safety Soyuz-denial perspective.

In short, if you're for Shuttle extension as a check to Soyuz-denial, you have to be for Orion CRV, and I haven't heard of anyone that is for Orion CRV except for the politicians and the contractors who will be receiving that pork.

1 comment:

  1. Coastal Ron12:17 PM

    I have a lot of respect for Glenn also, but I too was finding some lapses in reality (wishful thinking, not anything else). For instance:

    "The world’s only heavy lift spacecraft and the U.S.’s only access to space should stay in operation until suitably replaced by a new and well tested heavy lift vehicle."

    If the Shuttle is a "heavy lift" spacecraft, then so is the Delta IV Heavy, since they both have the same cargo capacity to LEO. If there was a need, then Atlas V Heavy could also be brought online, and it would have 20% more payload mass capability than either Delta IV Heavy or the Shuttle. He's ignoring the elephant in the room.

    "Cost savings with Shuttle cancellation are minimal, if any, when all factors of Russian launch are considered, and with the charge per astronaut undoubtedly going higher and higher in subsequent years."

    The Shuttle program manager, not one to overstate the costs of the Shuttle program, stated publicly that the Shuttle program costs $200M/month, regardless if they launch anything - that's $2.4B/year. The cost of rotating six astronauts to the ISS on the Soyuz would be less than $360M.

    If he really wanted to use American launchers for the ISS, then maybe he should push for NASA to fund ULA's proposal to man-rate the Delta IV Heavy for $1.3B (vehicle + facilities), with a per/launch cost of $300M for Orion. Or their offer to man-rate Atlas V for a commercial capsule ($400M), and charge $130M/launch. Atlas & Deltas are proven launchers, and Boeing/Lockheed Martin are the most experienced spacecraft entities in the world.

    I did like the detail he provided on the science we're getting (and could still get) from the ISS, and I personally think the ISS is a national treasure that should be fully utilized and expanded.