The USA (NASA) has been experiencing a gap now of several years in its own domestic capability to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) since the decommissioning of the space-shuttle program.
Does the reliance of the Russian Soyuz matter, or has it been good for international cooperation? Is it in fact inspiring a step-change in private space companies bringing us into a better era of space exploration?
How did we get here?
The space shuttle program was ambitious, hugely expensive, often successful, but also included several disasters. Worryingly, it also included many near misses, and seems to have been a departure from the initial culture of the Apollo space program. Apollo 13 captured the imagination, with the idea that a creative ad-hoc solution was found during the mission in order to not lose the crew, who were in a dire situation. In contrast to that episode, the Columbia disaster may have been prevented if requests from NASA engineers had been fulfilled to carry out investigation on the damaged heat-shield tiles prior to re-entry. There were many quirks with the shuttle, even down to various software bugs, leading to astronauts having to memorise which systems were required to register as OFF in order to actually be ON.
So, since 2010, the world has been dependent on the Russian Soyuz vehicle. A craft that began it’s life during the race to the moon, which of course Soviet Russia lost. However, since that time Russia focused on space-station technology, and getting to and from orbit, and has been extremely successful at doing so. Did the Russian space program losing the space-race/cold-war, mean that it’s winning the subsequent peace? Britain’s first ESA astronaut, Tim Peake, will be travelling to the ISS on the Soyuz craft this November, and international space efforts would be sunk without Soyuz, but what will happen next – when the next generation really gets going, will we then enter a era where we can’t quite believe this pause in development was quite so long?
Space is hard, and the reliable Soyuz craft is the result of the continuous development of a craft begun in the 1960’s. New and exciting things take a huge amount of money, and also a long time in development. NASA’s Orion spacecraft is still in development and currently not expected to be making manned flights until 2021…that’s quite a gap.