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American access to space could be a casualty of the Ukraine crisis

International Space Station
International Space Station
NASA

Charles Hoskinson, in a February 28, 2014 piece in the Washington Examiner, reminds us that one of the possible casualties of the crisis in the Ukraine might be American access to space.

“As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, it's important to consider just how much leverage President Obama has given Vladimir Putin's Russia over U.S. policy.

“The answer: All the way to outer space. That's right -- ever since Obama ended the U.S. manned spaceflight program, U.S. astronauts have depended on Russia to take them to the International Space Station.”

The problem started in 2010 when President Obama cancelled the Constellation program and with if it the “public option” of launching an Orion spacecraft on the Ares I rocket. Instead the Obama administration went all in for commercial space, paying a number of private companies vast subsidies to build their own crewed space craft. Currently these commercially run, government financed spacecraft are due to be operational sometime in 2017, three years hence.

Because of the president’s ham handed cancellation of Constellation, which angered members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, the legislative branch has been somewhat stingier in providing subsidies for the commercial crew effort that its supporters might like. Neither the White House nor NASA seems capable of working with Congress or making the space program a priority.

Thus we are faced with the following scenario. Obama, somewhat belatedly, imposes a number of economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia for its seizure of Ukrainian territory in the Crimea. One of the ways Putin retaliates is to deny American astronauts rides on Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, in effect seizing control of the ISS.

This is one reason Obama is not likely to react very strongly to Putin’s moves. He is not only a weak president but, because of policies he has pursued, has a weak hand. America will continue to be at a disadvantage in space until it regains its ability to fly its own astronauts,

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo, The Last Moonwalker and Other Stories, and The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper