Going It Alone

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from TIME Magazine,

Tensions over Crimea shake the U.S.-Russia space partnership. That could be a very good thing for NASA.

Space X Dragon

The U.S. used to hoot at the Soyuz, the same subcompact that’s been in use since 1966, puttering into low Earth orbit, while NASA launched Apollos and lunar modules and space shuttles–Cadillacs by comparison. But now the little Soyuz is the only ride in town, and for the U.S., there’s a whole different kind of humbling in that.

The American space program has arrived at a perilous place. Ever since the last shuttle flew in the summer of 2011, NASA has had no way to get crews to the International Space Station (ISS)–which, despite the International in its name, is overwhelmingly a NASA-built machine–without hitching a ride aboard the Soyuz. The Russians charge more than $70 million per seat for the service, a figure that crept up over the years and then leaped when the last shuttle went into mothballs–proving that if nothing else, the former communist regime had learned a thing or two about dynamic pricing.

But all that has changed, thanks to Crimea–a spit of land you’d have to squint to see from high Earth orbit. Once Russia annexed the former Ukrainian territory and the West hit back with sanctions, Moscow decided it might be a good time to play the space card. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry,” tweeted Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin on April 29, “I suggest the USA bring their astronauts to the ISS using a trampoline.”

Rogozin backed up the snark with action two weeks later, announcing that Russia would quit flying astronauts to the ISS by 2020, at least four years before the expected end of the station’s life.

NASA’s official position was a shrug. “Russia is every bit as dependent on us to operate the space station as we are on them,” says Greg Williams, one of the chief administrators in NASA.

There is some bravado in his position, but there’s reason for confidence too. NASA and three private manufacturers are well along in multiple efforts to produce America’s next crewed vehicle, at least one of which should be flying long before 2020.

But if the optics have turned ugly, there could be an unintended benefit. NASA’s manned space program has been adrift for more than 40 years now–ever since the Apollo 17 crew returned with the last load of moon rocks. Infrastructure has eroded, talent has fled, innovation has slowed.

Beginning in 2005, Washington bet that things could be turned around if NASA gave its low-Earth-orbit portfolio–including carrying cargo and crew to the ISS–to the private sector.

Now, nine years on, that plan is bearing fruit. Big players like Boeing, along with new kid SpaceX–run by PayPal and Tesla Motors pioneer Elon Musk–are making progress and meeting deadlines and looking as if they might actually be able to truck people and stuff into space in a reliable fashion. NASA, too, with its history of overpromising and underdelivering, is showing flashes of its old genius, at last cutting metal on its new crewed spacecraft and making plans for sending astronauts to deep space for the first time since 1972. Congress, its pride stung by Rogozin, is exhibiting a new interest in getting America back in the space game. The Cold War turbocharged the old push into space; Russia may have jolted the U.S. into a new one.

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