In the classic science fiction narrative, the purpose of venturing into space was – as Gene Roddenberry put it – “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
There was supposed to be a progression: Go to the moon, go to other planets, then ultimately start darting around the galaxy through folds in the time-space continuum (or something like that).
Science fiction is, well, fiction. Russia’s new threat to evict the United States from near-earth orbit is a painful reminder that America’s manned space program is a long, long way from the stars.
Russia jerked its leash on NASA last week by announcing that it would stop selling rockets to the U.S. military, shut the United States out of the International Space Station in 2020, and look to China for future partnerships in space. This was in retaliation for the sanctions America has imposed on Russia for its mischief in Ukraine.
These counter-sanctions show how dependent the American space program has become on a country whose leader – Vladimir Putin – sees himself as a global adversary of the United States and all its works.
The most embarrassing evidence of our dependency is the fact that the United States can no longer launch an astronaut into orbit, something it was capable of doing in 1962.
When the space shuttle program ended in 2011, no successor vehicle was ready to take its place. Private companies are supposed to take on the job in 2017; in the meantime, NASA is having to pay Russia to carry our astronauts to the space station.
It’s also weird that the Pentagon has been relying on Russian boosters to launch spy and GPS satellites into orbit.
The space station is likely to be the biggest casualty if Russia follows through on its threats. It built the massive satellite in partnership with the United States, though America sank much more money into its construction.
Russia has a treaty obligation to maintain the station until 2020. NASA wants to use it until 2024 or even 2028. The United States can’t keep the station going without Russian help, though, so if Russia abandons it, America has nowhere to go in space.
That brings up another question: Does the United States have any real plan for humans in space? A few years back, there was talk about going to the moon, which a more ambitious America was able to do in 1969. Now there’s talk about going to Mars or landing on asteroids. It’s all vague, far in the future and fuzzy on goals.
At the moment, it looks as if we can’t have much of a manned program at all without Putin’s good will. If our interest in keeping Americans in space is so weak, maybe we ought to ask why we’re bothering at all.