Without Russia, NASA couldn’t send astronauts to the space station between 2010 and 2015.
International cooperation in human spaceflight may be facing its toughest test since the cold war.
The immediate concern: Will US astronauts be able to ride Russian rockets between 2010, when the last shuttle is retired, and 2015, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration expects to launch a replacement?
Russian spacecraft are how NASA plans to send its astronauts to the International Space Station. But with tensions rising over Russia’s invasion of Georgia and a US-Polish missile deal, some lawmakers and space-policy analysts worry that the US Congress – or Russia itself – could scuttle the plan. If tensions fail to ease over the longer term, the space station could shift from an orbiting laboratory to a geopolitical bargaining chip.
The possibility that international tensions could limit US access to the space station for at least five years “is a real concern,” says Ray Williamson, an analyst with the Secure World Foundation, a space-policy think tank in Superior, Colo. But the notion that the US needs an alternative right away is a bit premature, he adds.
Proposals range from extending the shuttle program beyond 2010 to cutting a deal with China, which is ramping up its own human spaceflight effort. Each option faces big budgetary or political challenges.
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