The International Space Station (ISS), flying around the Earth every 90 minutes, is the most expensive project that has ever been started in the development of interplanetary space. In a few days, the station will be connected to our planet by a very thin, but very expensive thread, and Russia holds this thread in its hands, historical US rival in space exploration.
On Friday, the American shuttle will make its last flight. After that, the United States and other countries will fully depend on Russia, because the old Russian spacecraft Soyuz will deliver their astronauts to the ISS, which costs $ 100 billion. Moscow will get a monopoly on space flights, and tensions are growing around this problem. The fact is that Russia is going to almost three times raise the price for the delivery of astronauts to the orbital base on the Soyuz capsules, and the rest of the countries have no choice but to pay.
“We found ourselves in a rather unpleasant situation, and the word“ unpleasant ”is a euphemism,” says Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency, which is one of five organizations that manage the orbital laboratory, “we did collective error.
"Soyuz" is a ship, which represents the triumph of a cheap approach to the problem of the exploration of outer space by man. Russian capsules are launched into space with the help of massive disposable rockets, they are something of a controlled "cannonball" that takes astronauts into orbit and returns them back to Earth. Unlike Russia, the United States has created its own program for the development of interplanetary space based on the most sophisticated of the existing aircraft - shuttles, i.e. "Space Shuttles" reusable. While the United States has already spent $ 209,1 billion on this project for all the flights of the shuttles, the cost of the entire Russian space program is only $ 2 billion a year.
“Today, reusable ships are expensive, their use is not justified from an economic point of view,” said Vladimir Popovkin, the newly appointed head of the Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), last month in an interview with a journalist from a Russian newspaper. Roscosmos officials did not comment on this article.
Meanwhile, Russia will not always be a monopolist in the field of manned space flight. If everything goes as planned by the National Aerospace Agency (NASA), its monopoly will end in 2016. By this time, the Americans are hoping to choose the most suitable of several interplanetary ships that are currently being developed. Today, NASA is striving to create a commercial service of the so-called “space taxi”, the development, formation and management of which will be undertaken by private sector enterprises, which will reduce costs and accelerate the pace of project implementation.
“We are making very energetic efforts to create our own means for putting a person into orbit,” said William Gerstenmaier, deputy head of NASA and chairman of the international board that oversees the work of the International Space Station.
Since 2004, when President George W. Bush announced the completion of a program to use reusable transport spacecraft, the Russian Federal Space Agency has raised the price of shipping American astronauts to the ISS eight times. According to the agency’s financial experts, if we take as a basis the conditions of the last contract, by the year 2016 one passenger seat in the Soyuz capsule will cost NASA $ 63 million, i.e. its value will increase by 175% compared to the 2005 rates of the year.
The largest one-time price increase takes effect at the end of the summer of this year and coincides in time with the last shuttle flight. At the end of this year, the cost of delivering a single American astronaut to orbit aboard the Soyuz spacecraft will be $ 43,4 million - 57% more than in the first half of the year.
The Russian government is unlikely to use its monopoly on the delivery of space crews to the ISS as a means of diplomatic pressure, however, naturally, it will not refuse to derive commercial benefits from this, a number of American experts in the field of space exploration believe.
Nevertheless, Russians are far from triumphing over the "demise" of the space shuttle. Here is what Alexey Krasnov, head of the Federal Space Agency’s Manned Programs Directorate, said in an interview with a Russian newspaper last month: “Even though the United States will pay us to use our Soyuz, the rejection of the use of shuttles not a good news For Russia". The official noted that the creation of the ISS, one of the largest sponsors of which is his country, would hardly have been possible without space shuttles. “It would be better for us if the shuttles continued to fly, at least once a year,” added Krasnov.
The international space station was originally conceived as a platform for sending ships to other planets. However, later its tasks were reduced to the role of an orbital laboratory to study how human and other organisms behave in conditions of reduced gravity. With the help of these studies, scientists hope to learn more about how a living organism functions, as well as discover new types of treatment and vaccines. To do this, people have to conduct these experiments or participate in them.
So far, NASA has already bought 2016 seats for Soyuz ships for the period up to 46, and wants to book a few more. Agency officials explain the sharp price spikes in inflation and the rising cost of creating new "Unions", which Russians have been building for 40 years. Recently, Russian designers have modified their spacecraft somewhat, a new version will be released this year.
In April of this year, NASA allocated funds in the amount of $ 269,3 million to five US aerospace companies to develop and build systems for delivering people to the ISS.
One of these firms, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., located in Hawthorne, California, according to experts, has progressed further than others. She promised to build a reusable system capable of putting seven astronauts into orbit at a cost of only $ 20 million for each - a mere penny compared with the cost of transporting space crews, which many experts predict.
"We need to meet the funds that taxpayers are willing to pay," said Elon Musk, head of the company, who also co-owns PayPal and Tesla Motors, "NASA must be able to deliver more astronauts to orbit as much as possible for the International Space Station ".
Meanwhile, an analysis commissioned by NASA by Aerospace Corp., one of the most influential third-party consultants of the agency, looks much less optimistic. According to her forecasts, the future cost of delivering an astronaut to orbit will be within $ 90- $ 150 million.
Space Exploration has already signed a contract with NASA for a total cost of $ 1,6 billion to deliver cargo to the ISS, which will take effect next year. To do this, the company will use its experimental Dragon ships and Falcon missiles (Falcon. In April of this year, NASA allocated $ 75 million to the company to create an emergency escape system for the launch vehicles for the Dragon vehicles will turn the cargo ship into a vehicle for transporting people.
Despite certain achievements, namely the launch of the first private spacecraft and its successful descent from orbit, Mr. Mask and his company faced a number of technical problems and failures at launch, which violated the schedule of work and reduced the expected results.
As Mr. Mask said, in order to catch up, he intends to abandon the test flight of the unmanned Dragon ship, originally scheduled for this summer, and check by the end of this year whether the spacecraft is capable of successfully docking with the orbital station.
However, officials from Roskosmos in April said that in the near future they would not allow an unmanned spacecraft to approach the International Space Station and dock with it, until they make sure that such an operation is safe. The fact is that in the 1997 year, when trying to dock with the Russian station Mir, the cargo module crashed into it and caused severe damage.
Meanwhile, the head of the ISS program at NASA, Michael Saffredini (Michael Suffredini) believes that the concerns of the Russian side should not be taken to heart. “Russians sometimes make statements without having relevant data at hand,” he noted.
However, NASA has not yet developed all the procedures necessary to certify new manned ships for safety. This was reported last week by the agency’s inspector general. In connection with each delay, fears are growing that the task of creating an effective replacement for the shuttle that will make its last flight this week will be postponed to a later date.
“Companies will need a little more time to implement the project than they promise,” Mr. Saffredini emphasized, “I don’t expect any serious results from them until the end of 2016 of the year.”
Indeed, NASA's inspector general warned last week that the process of creating a safe commercial vehicle by private companies could drag on so much that it would jeopardize US access to the International Space Station.
"It is highly doubtful that any of these companies will be able in the near future to offer an inexpensive and rational version of a spacecraft to transport crews into orbit," said John Logsdon, a space analyst at George Washington University the time, American astronauts will have to rely on the services of Russian "taxi". "
In fact, NASA is already intending to buy more seats for its astronauts in Russian capsules, if the time frame for building commercial spacecraft is stalled. Currently, the agency has reserved seats on board the Soyuz ships for the period up to 2016, and for this it was necessary for Congress to lift the legislative restrictions on the sale of high-tech products to Russia. In order to acquire more seats on board the Soyuz, NASA will have to seek the consensus agreement that the agency is currently engaged in.
Despite the increase in ticket prices, the use of Soyuz capsules seems to be a relatively good bargain if you take the cost of the shuttle for comparison. These devices are completely different approaches to solving the problem of launching a spacecraft with a man on board. In many ways, the Unions resemble systems such as the Apollo moon capsule (Apollo) and the Saturn rocket that Americans used in the 1960s.
In contrast, the shuttle is a reusable cruise spaceship. This manned vehicle can descend from orbit to earth as a glider. The design of each shuttle includes 2,5 million of various parts and electrical wires, the total length of which is 230 miles. Extreme values of speed, temperature, gravity and vacuum are typical for the operation of the device.
Developing this ship in 1970's, the designers of NASA promised to make civilian manned flights an inexpensive and safe, in a word, quite routine procedure. The device was supposed to be a means capable of delivering man to other planets. It was planned to make up to 50 flights per year.
During 30 flights, these ships launched more than 50 satellites into orbit and transported more than three million pounds of various cargoes. On board, 335 people from 16 countries flew into interstellar space. With their help, space probes and the largest orbital observatories were launched, including the Hubble space telescope.
In practice, however, the program did not become a routine, reliable and inexpensive procedure. Shuttle launch costs $ 1,5 billion - this is exactly a hundred times higher than $ 10,5 million, i.e. what NASA officials promised at the initial stage of project development in 1972. The agency could not even come close to the rates that the designers had predicted.
In the absence of shuttles, NASA managers are puzzled over how to rebuild the operation technology of the International Space Station. They reviewed the methods of station repair and research, made plans for the next decade. They used the latest shuttle flights to create in orbit entire warehouses of large spare parts that do not fit on board the Russian, European and Japanese cargo ships currently used to supply the ISS.
In the end, the Americans can only speculate that, ironically, they won the technological race by creating the shuttle, but lost the war as a whole. “It can be said that the Russians were on the right track from the very beginning, using large and uncomplicated launch vehicles for space flights,” said Alex Roland, an associate at Duke University who studies the history of flights into interstellar space.
* Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.