Recently on CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, Romney spokesperson John Sununu made the claim that Obama had outsourced the space program to Russia. He brought up how the latest crew rotation to the International Space Station has recently been launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan as evidence to support this claim.
This is of course invented history.
The United States has never been able to fully support crew rotations onboard the space station. The key to crew support is being able to return to earth in case of emergencies. The Space Shuttle could only sustain itself on-orbit for 16 days, reduced to 10 days after the loss of Columbia which was carrying the Extended Duration Orbiter (EDO) system that allowed for longer orbital stays. The space station needed a vehicle to allow them to leave in a moments notice in case of emergencies. The initial plan was to use the Russian built Soyuz, which could remain docked for up to eight months at a time, as the first vehicle for this role. The United States would co-develop with the European Space Agency a vehicle called the Crew Return Vehicle (CRV), which was expected to enter service in 2006. Despite a series of successful tests, the CRV found itself cancelled in April of 2002 under the new NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe.
Without a way to return the crew safely, the ISS would never be able to support more than the three people which Soyuz could carry.
O’Keefe then unveiled to a new program, the Orbital Space Plane (OSP), to fill both this role as well as bringing astronauts up to the station (under the previous plan, the Shuttle and Soyuz would both do that job). With O’Keefe’s replacement as NASA administrator by Mike Griffin in 2005, this program was quickly replaced with an all new vehicle, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), later named Orion. Due to the delays caused by these repeated cancellations, NASA made an arrangement with Russia to allow for two Soyuz to be docked at the ISS, bringing the station compliment up to six. NASA would then purchase seats for an Astronaut who would ride up with the Russian Cosmonauts. The goal was to only use this until the CEV was to be ready.
To pay for these programs, systems needed to keep the Shuttle flying were slowly dismantled and destroyed. For example, here is former NASA engineer, flight director and Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale discussing how they scrapped first pieces of the Shuttle’s support in 2004, the tools needed to make the casings for the solid rocket boosters needed for every shuttle flight. NASA had a plan to replace it, after all. But, as with all previous efforts, nothing went according to plan. The replacement program ran into budget issues, but this time the new NASA administrator, former Astronaut and Marine General Charles Bolden, ordered a review commission.
The results were as expected, but instead of scrapping the entire program, as his predecessors had done, Bolden put forth a new proposal, complete the CEV, now called Orion, and use it as the lifeboat for the ISS and to use the Shuttle for crew rotation. However, they later discovered that by then, the Shuttles were too far shut down to extend their operation. Critical systems were no longer available, and could not be restarted quickly, nor without major expense. Bolden did order the use of all reserve components for the Shuttle, allowing them to add several more flights past its original June 2010 final launch date. These extra flights extended the ISS operation to allow for a new program, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), to take over for the role the Shuttle had held for so long, cargo resupply. The first COTS mission, launched by SpaceX this past May was a great success, yet is ignored by Mr. Sununu.
To address the crew rotation issue, Bolden ordered a new plan, utilizing the model which had proven successful with COTS, only adapting it to handle crew rotation. While Orion is well underway for its first flight is will not be ready for manned flight until 2017. However, commercially provided spacecraft from vendors such as Boeing, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and ATK are being brought online faster and cheaper than restoring the Shuttle or using Orion in that role. This would allow NASA to focus on developing Orion into a deep space craft for a return to the Moon, visiting an asteroid, and the eventual mission to Mars, rather than trying to use it in a limited ISS support role.
What Mr. Sununu wants to lay the blame on Obama’s doorstep has to do with Bush’s policies, cancelling the critical programs and scrapping the support for what programs were left. Obama inherited a bad situation on all fronts, including in space. He could have just said forget about it, and walked away. Instead, he, through his Administrator, have taken a bag of lemons and are working to make lemonade out of it.