A Soyuz space vehicle is giving an American astronaut a $70 million lift tonight, as the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) continues to provide shuttle service for the International Space Station (ISS). That is the cost of the seat American astronaut Steve Swanson will occupy on the Russian spaceship because the U.S. no longer has its own space vehicle. Glasnost still seems to be working…in space, at least.
That arrangement is coming at the cost of considerable embarrassment for the United States as the U.S. and the Russian Republic continue to agree to disagree with each other over events in Crimea and Ukraine. While it may seem unseemly for American astronauts to hitch rides on Russian spacecraft, the fact remains that the ISS is primarily a joint US-Russian operation, and is just one of several areas in which the two super-powers much cooperate.
So far, at least, the New Cold War has not yet spread into space. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) spokesman Trent Perrotto, told FoxNews that NASA is “…confident that our two space agencies will continue to work closely as they have throughout various ups and downs of the broader U.S.-Russia relationship.”
There are at least three people who hope that Perrotto is right. Currently, three people are holding down the fort in space, American astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyuirn, and Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata. All three veteran spacemen are flight engineers, who arrived at the ISS together 139 days ago.
American astronauts have been hitching rides on the Russian space vehicles since 2011, when the shuttle Atlantis completed NASA’s last shuttle mission, STS-135, on July 21 of that year. At that $70.7 million price tag, a round trip ticket on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft is a tremendous bargain for American tax payers because the total cost of the Space Shuttle program – $192 billion – when divided by the 135 shuttle missions flown by the Shuttles comes to a per-mission price of $1.42 billion. The last shuttle mission, with seven astronauts on board, cost tax payers a minimum of $203 million per seat. Three seats on the Soyuz rocket would run the U.S. $221 million, putting three people in space for the price of one seat on the American shuttle.
Either way, the Russians obviously ate America’s lunch when it came to the space race. They were the first in space, and now they are the only commuter route to and from the ISS.
Critics of the American shuttle program have repeatedly pointed out the “astronomical” costs of program, when compared to the Russian program. Most of the blame falls on the shuttle’s design itself, which was already out of date, according to most experts, before the first mission left the ground.
The shuttle program has also been costly in terms of lives lost, with the U.S. losing a total of 14 astronauts in the Challenger and Columbia disasters, while the Soviet space program lost only five cosmonauts. The Challenger exploded during takeoff due to the failure of a rubber “O” ring, but the Columbia burned up during re-entry specifically because of a design flaw that damaged the heat shielding tiles on the spacecraft’s wing.
The Soviet Union tested its own bigger, better, and more versatile space shuttle, called the Buran, that was capable of lifting 90 tons of cargo, three times more than the anemic Space Shuttles could lift. The Buran flew only one mission before the economic collapse of the Soviet Union killed the program.
Most experts agree that the Buran was a definite step up from the American shuttle program, but the reality is that both programs were economic and engineering disasters born out of a mistaken belief that spaceships had to have wings in order to land like an aircraft to be reused again and again.
The key to the success of the Russian spacecraft has been the use of disposable rockets to lift the reusable capsules into orbit. The American program used a combination of disposable booster rockets and a reusable thruster built into the shuttle itself. In the final analysis, the ease of replacing the booster rockets – and the capsule heat shield – after each flight turned out to be much more cost efficient than the American approach.
The limitation of the Russian capsule has always been its payload capacity. The Soyuz can only lift 17,000 pounds to the ISS orbit. The Shuttle could lift over 50,000 pounds, but the Russians also have an unmanned Proton rocket that can lift 46,000 pounds to low earth orbit.
The U.S. is planning a comeback with Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft, which was designed for deep space missions, including planned missions to Mars. Two and half times the size of the Soyuz, the Orion will be able to lift up 290,000 pounds to low earth orbit, 5.8 times the payload of the Space Shuttle, when mounted on the Space Launch Vehicle (SLV).
The first unmanned test flight for the Orion is scheduled for September, 2014. It will be mounted on a Delta IV rocket for the test because the SLV will not be operational until 2017, The first manned Orion flight is scheduled for 2020.
On the surface, then, it would seem that the old Russian system bettered the capitalist approach….but there are players in the mix now. Elon Musk’s U.S. based SpaceX corporation, which has already flown three supply missions to the ISS, prices its Falcon 9 missions at $56.6 million per unmanned launch for a 29,000 pound payload for 25 percent of the cost of a Soyuz mission. Space, itself, is up for grabs…and SpaceX is planning to launch manned missions utilizing its Falcon Heavy, three Falcon 9s strapped together to provide a 116,850 pound payload.
Nor is Elon Musk going to be all alone up there. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been planning to commence commercial spaceflights every year since 2007. Currently, he plans to take off for space in the Burt Rutan designed SpaceShip Two sometime in 2014, if all goes well.
The Soyuz space vehicle may be giving one American astronaut a $70 million lift tonight, but free enterprise is quite literally rising to the occasion.
By Alan M. Milner