Saving Two American Astronauts From Russian Blackmail

Recently, relations between Russia and the United States have worsened dramatically due to the annexation of Crimea, the quasi-conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the probable destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by Russian-funded separatists. The United States is threatening serious sanctions, including banning high-tech exports to Russia.

The United States paid Russia 60 million dollars per American astronaut to get access to the Space Station. Russia pledged tit-for-tat measures in revenge for U.S. sanctions, by refusing to allow Americans access to our 150 billion-dollar International Space Station, of which the United States paid 84 percent of the cost. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin even threatened to cut off American access to the station, saying “I propose that the United States delivers its astronauts to the ISS with the help of a trampoline.” Sadly, today NASA cannot put men into space without Russian cooperation and hasn’t done so for years. The United States lacks the manned spaceflight capability to resupply and visit the ISS for the first time since 1961.

Currently, two Americans, Gregory Reid Wiseman and Steven Ray Swanson, and one German, Alexander Gerst, are stranded on the International Space Station with three Russians. Effectively, the Russian Federation is holding the astronauts hostage.

Roughly 45 years ago, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon. They came in peace for all mankind and they were Americans. Their “one small step” sent a powerful message to the Soviet Union that the United States was technologically unchallengeable and provided America ample “soft power” in the rest of the world. Today however, NASA’s troubled Constellation program, meant to replace the aging Space Shuttle fleet, was canceled after most of the $230 billion of dollars allocated for it was spent. NASA today doesn’t have the incentive to pursue its primary mission of exploration and scientific inquiry. It is much more concerned with “Muslim Outreach.” So how can we return the two astronauts to Earth without Russian help and continue mankind’s expansion into space?

As usual, the American private sector has shown that it can do what the American government cannot. SpaceX, the brainchild of PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, has answered with the Falcon 9/Dragon space launch system. The Dragon capsule recently made headlines as the first, unmanned, private craft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Each Falcon 9 launch costs around $54 million. If the space shuttle were around today, it would cost more than $1.6 billion per launch.

That’s a great example of the private sector’s amazing ability to out-compete government bureaucracy. One shuttle launch could pay for 29 SpaceX launches, and leave $34 million to spare. The Falcon 9/Dragon system has been proven to be far safer than the Russian Soyuz system and is expected to be operational for manned flight by mid-2015. Fortunately, the American spirit of exploration and innovation is alive and well in the private sector. If necessary, SpaceX could likely rescue the ISS astronauts, sending a powerful signal to the Putin regime that America will not tolerate blackmail.

Unfortunately, the government has been moving in the opposite direction. Under President Obama’s NASA budget, money is shifted from the successful parts of NASA, like its robotic exploration program, to areas that produce nothing tangible, such as its environmental sciences program and “outreach.” Obama’s budget manages to cut every part of NASA that actually works, including planetary science programs, technological development programs, and many important future Mars missions — without saving any money. As the deceased Neil Armstrong put it, NASA is basically doomed to yet another decade of doing nothing in space.

NASA has actually been reduced to holding bake sales to try to convince lawmakers to save these programs. Unfortunately for the agency, it doesn’t have a strong case. The original cost estimates to develop new launch vehicles for the George H.W. Bush-era Space Exploration Initiative, projected to stretch across three decades, typically fell in the range of $400 to $500 billion. Contrast that with the $300 million spent by SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 in a little over four years. However, America shouldn’t stop when we return our astronauts to Earth.