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Now, NASA and Russians need each other

Spaceflight advocates have hoped that the subject might actually become a topic of political interest. Now it has, for all the wrong reasons. Analysis by NBC News' James Oberg.
Image: Soyuz departure
A Russian Soyuz spacecraft departs from the international space station in April, carrying a U.S.-Russian-Korean crew back down to Earth. Soyuz spaceships serve as the primary means for transporting space station crews.

Going into the 2008 presidential campaign, spaceflight advocates hoped that the subject might actually become a topic of political interest for the first time in decades. Now it has, for all the wrong reasons.

Some politicians have suddenly realized that the safety-motivated retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 will leave the United States dependent on Russian rockets to reach the international space station for five years or so. Many of those politicians have known for years exactly what NASA’s plan was: to buy Russian spaceship tickets. They put through budgets that prevented NASA from developing alternatives. Now they're feigning shock and outrage that this is really going to happen, and demanding a wide range of stopgap measures, each costing billions of dollars.

With relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorating, it’s become politically profitable to "bash the Russians" over allowing them to carry our astronauts into space. And with the presidential campaign closely contested in Florida, it's become expedient for politicians of all stripes to adopt a position of "no job losses" in the shuttle program.

All this posturing is so patently opportunistic and half-baked that it can only distract from real debates and delay implementation of real solutions.

Setting aside the staged outrage and bashing, that political energy could better be productively turned into realistic planning that doesn’t involve magically reanimating the space shuttle program, which is already well down the track to a well-deserved retirement.

One small step
The first step in a "get better" strategy is to stop going into the U.S.-Russian deal acting as if the U.S. was over a barrel. Playing the preordained patsy is a sure way to prompt the Russians to escalate their demands, in space and back on Earth.

The truth is, while NASA has become dependent on the Russian contribution to the international space station, the Russians' manned space program has become even more dependent on the station (and U.S. support of it). If NASA will have to depend on the Russians to transport astronauts between Earth and space for several years, it won't be any different from the situation that existed from 2003 to mid-2005.

The Russians are stuck with a different kind of dependence. The American half of the space station provides their modules with critical power and communications resources, not to mention advanced research devices, that they have never been able to build themselves. While it may become technically feasible at some future point to unhook their section and fly free, this will only become possible after several more expansion modules are added at their end, some of them carried aboard the remaining space shuttle missions.

By that time, NASA and its partners in Europe, Japan and Canada will have a facility that contains (or has access to) all the critical functions that in the first decade of operation were provided by Russian hardware.

Moreover, even if the Russians did cut loose their section at that point, they would be thrown back to the meager level of operations they suffered through a quarter-century ago — a primitive mode which even their own experts have now come to denounce as useless grandstanding. There would also be a legal dispute over who actually owns the U.S.-financed, Russian-built Zarya cargo module. NASA has no practical need of it now, except that the Russians want it, which makes it far more valuable as a bargaining chip than as a space asset.

And with China (and soon afterwards, India) potentially champing at the bit to step in and replace Russia as space station partners, it would be the U.S. side holding the high cards, not Moscow.

A little space history
Now, there have been some pointed questions about how the United States wound up in the situation of supposedly being excessively dependent on Russian space services in the first place. Ironically, these inquiries usually are posed by critics of the Bush administration — which actually inherited that posture from the Clinton administration.

When the Russians were first invited to join the international space station effort in 1993, a suspicious Congress approved the deal under the conditions that the Russian contribution “enhance but not enable” the project. That is, Moscow could play as add-ons, but it could not be placed “in the critical path” of any station function. These conditions were accepted by all parties.

From the beginning, the Clinton White House and then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin misrepresented the plans and their implementation. Russia was quickly placed “in the critical path” for orbital hardware and space transportation. (Their self-esteem demanded it, one White House adviser asserted.) Alternate NASA-only approaches were scrapped.

But this reliance works both ways: The U.S. space effort is in the Russians' critical path, and they have a lot fewer resources for setting off down a different path. Hard as it may be to visualize at the moment, they’d be a lot worse off without NASA than NASA would be without them.

Follow the space money
When the cash flow factor is added in, the idea that the U.S. space effort is helplessly dependent on the Russians looks even more preposterous. It has been Western money, mostly from the U.S., that over the past 15 years has kept the Russian space industry alive. Despite a budget surplus, the Kremlin has been and continues to be stingy with federal allocations, requiring space organizations to earn a large fraction of their money overseas — and even pay taxes on their earnings. Recent Moscow promises to double the space budget have wilted in the face of crashing oil and gas prices.

Further, it’s safe to assume that general Russian business practices regarding foreign deals hold true. This implies that this external cash flow is not restricted to official channels. Many top Russian space industry figures and their shadowy "facilitators" can be presumed to be getting their own rewards for working out foreign deals. If that income ever came under threat, they would likely wind up being "active and true friends" of continued U.S.-Russian space cooperation.

What NASA needs to do is to get some backbone into its negotiating teams, and walk into the room with the knowledge — secretly shared by the Russians — that the United States actually holds the space aces. NASA can hammer out a deal from that strong starting point, and not from an position of humble subservience. The same attitude should govern how NASA and the Russians address the safety issues pointed up by recent problems with Soyuz capsule landings.

As for Congress: Lawmakers need to clear the way quickly for the purchase of Russian space rides at bargain prices, while NASA works on potential fall-back options and keeps up the price pressure on Moscow. On this basis, the U.S., Russia and the other space station partners can get on with their business, in concert and on their own.

This week's 50th anniversary of NASA's founding, and next month's 10th anniversary of the first space station module's launch, provide fitting opportunities to review the alliance forged to operate the international space station. Although that alliance hasn't fully met any of its original promises, it has taught lessons about spaceflight that make it well worth preserving and expanding. Reality-based  if reluctant — interdependence is one of the most valuable of those lessons.

James Oberg, space analyst for NBC News, spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books about the U.S. and Russian space programs, including "Red Star in Orbit" and "Star-Crossed Orbits."