America’s mainstay space transport, the space shuttle, will be retired later this year with no substitute ready to go online, leaving the United States without the capability to perform manned space flight. Because the United States continues to hold responsibilities to furnish crew and payloads for the International Space Station (ISS), the United States will rely on Russia and its Soyuz capsule for transportation.
The first problem with the proposal to hire the Russians for America’s space transportation needs is the cost. At an estimated cost of $56 million per astronaut, some people point out those costs can escalate over time. NASA reports that the average space shuttle mission costs $450 million, but that cost includes a large payload capacity.
Without its own space transportation, the United States has no control over when missions can go to the ISS. Furthermore, since other nations also rely on Russia for transport, American missions could easily get bumped in the event a higher bidder wins priority. Americans no longer would have control over mission quality, meaning that American lives could be jeopardized by mechanical or human failure within the Russian program. Also, since Russian relations with the U.S. are historically turbulent, any new crisis could result in the loss of American interests in space. The United States could become subject to space blackmail, being forced to make additional financial or policy concessions in order to avoid the spectacle of Americans being stranded in space.
With the demand for space travel being outsourced to Russia, the United States will feel less pressure to deploy a new manned space vehicle. With NASA’s latest program, the Constellation, cancelled, an indefinite window now exists where America will have to depend on the Russians. The Soyuz program will not remain viable forever, so sooner or later a rmajor space crisis could develop.
The United States has been the leader in space travel and technology for decades. By lacking the will to take care of its own needs, the nation now has to depend on a potential adversary for space travel. Some people feel that the loss of American capacity to put human beings into orbit is symbolic of a larger decline. A loss of American exceptionalism in full view of the entire world portrays elements of weakness that is uncomfortable to many Americans. As the nation continues to appear weak, it stands to continue to lose power and influence on the international stage.