HOUSTON — The latest Soyuz launch underscores the gamble that the U.S. space program is embarking on: reliance for years to come on one other country to carry all of NASA's astronauts into space. No space system is ever 100 percent reliable — so how risky is this strategy?
The central lesson of the worldwide partnership that built the International Space Station has become clear. We have learned that multiple independent technologies for major space capabilities provide amazing robustness in the face of the unavoidable surprises. Whether for oxygen, or spacewalking, or crew access, redundancy can be crucial.
But now that lesson is being defied. The space station's expedition crew members — including Russia's Fyodor Yurchikhin and NASA's Doug Wheelock and Shannon Walker, who are heading for the orbital outpost on Tuesday — will no longer be traveling back and forth on the soon-to-be-retired space shuttles. Single-string, critical-path capabilities are suddenly supposed to be "good enough."
Perfection cannot be assumed. What are the leading threats — known and suspected — to the last remaining lifeline to the station, the Soyuz?
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1. Price gouging: The Russian temptation for monopolistic overcharging will be hard to resist, and the recent price hikes for space seats have aroused a lot of suspicion.
But hard bargaining goes both ways, and the U.S. side holds some high cards too. Most electrical power and most space-to-earth communications channels on the space station are U.S.-owned. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, a station veteran, complained last year that using Russian ground sites alone allowed for the downlink of only one large image file per communications session — a rate that was exceeded by the U.S. (and Soviet) space stations in the 1970s and 1980s. Russia’s new-generation space radio relay satellites are only now approaching launch. The U.S. can match any price hike for transportation with symmetrical price hikes for kilowatt-hours and megabits.
2. Technological flaw: The Soyuz spacecraft and boosters have decades of flight experience and evolutionary upgrades behind them. But because they're expendable vehicles, the reliability of each launch is determined by current industrial practices, not by any statistical momentum from the record books.
In recent years, there have been plenty of unpleasant surprises both in hardware and software. There's also been a distressing pattern of preference for preventing public knowledge of such problems in Moscow and Washington. On two successive Soyuz descents in 2008, the spacecraft failed to jettison its expended service module properly. As a result, the Soyuzes twisted nose-first into the fiery re-entry plasma, threatening lethal damage to unshielded sections of the capsule. Early in 2009, a software flaw led to a botched rocket firing that nearly shook the station to the breaking point. Later that year, the Soyuz launch escape system malfunctioned, but fortunately it was not needed for an emergency escape. In all these cases, news of the failures leaked out despite official silence. Perhaps there are more we don’t know about.
3. Crew training: If there’s one key to the ability of U.S. and Russian space crews to overcome emergencies or the loss of essential space systems, it’s the in-depth, hands-on training they receive during years of pre-flight preparation. Not knowing or doing the right thing could lead to serious consequences in the unforgiving space environment.
The Russian cosmonaut training center at Star City has recently undergone a tumultuous bureaucratic and budget shakeup, as its management (and funding) have switched from military to civilian agencies. The new director, former cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, has issued public warnings that major investments are needed to replace equipment that no longer functions, or was removed by departing military personnel.
When asked, cosmonauts and astronauts express full confidence in the adequacy of their training. But just last month the current crew became the first crew in years to fail their "final exams." They passed a re-test, but in space, there are no such do-overs to get it right.
4. Diplomatic stability: Access to the Baikonur Cosmodrome in independent Kazakhstan depends on the benevolence of the current Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, whose iron hand holds together the ethnically divided nation ((Kazakh south, Russian north, Baikonur in the middle). But the 70-year-old is not immortal, and successor regimes may prove more uncooperative on issues such as environmental damage, utility bills and fair treatment of Kazakh workers at the base.
5. Terrorism: The launch site at Baikonur takes the terrorist threat (from Chechens or other separatists) seriously enough to conduct annual anti-terrorist drills with special military units. The special forces were actually scarier than the thought of a true terrorist attack, since their tactic of choice seemed to be to charge in and kill everyone in sight. Security for the now-demilitarized base has been turned over to civilian police and contractors, imported from Moscow.
While Islamic extremist groups and Chechen settlements are found throughout Kazakhstan, a closer-to-home potential target could be space facilities in Moscow, often located alongside busy public streets. Attacks there — or even threats of attacks — could seriously upset flight operations.
6. Demographics: The saddest secret of Russia’s space program is the aging workforce, retiring or dying off at their posts. These critical experts are only partially being replaced by new employees willing to work for laughably low wages because they are devoted to the ideal of spaceflight. Even recent cosmonaut recruitment efforts actually had to actively seek candidates for the job — there simply weren’t enough qualified applicants mailing in their forms.
Combined with a cultural trait of not documenting procedures and past events (the fewer people who know something, the more essential become those who can remember it), these staffing trends are alarming in terms of the diminution of skills and corporate memory through continued hemorrhage of irreplaceable skilled workers.
In the long run, NASA will be able to turn to U.S. commercial launch providers as well as the Russians for rides to space. And even in the short run, the risks associated with Russian spaceflight are by no means a guarantee that something will go wrong. Rather, they define areas where constant alertness and remedial work is needed. Absence or inadequacy of that kind of work could then open the door to sudden failure.
NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at the Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He has written numerous books on the U.S. and Russian space efforts, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Allance."