Early Thursday morning, a Russian space launch carrying an American and a Russian to the International Space Station failed, forcing an emergency landing in Kazakhstan. Although the crew members were safe, the failure of the Soviet-designed booster rockets highlights the importance of a domestic space program and reinforces just how troubling current delays to that program are.
Since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, the U.S. has relied on Russian rockets to take American astronauts to the International Space Station, paying between $70 and $80 million per seat.
For the most part, that arrangement has worked, despite troubling failures from the Russian program. Thursday’s emergency landing, the first manned launch failure for the Russian program since before the collapse of the Soviet Union, raised new questions about the reliability of Russian rockets.
The lack of U.S. capabilities to take our own astronauts to the Space Station leave Washington dependent on a partnership with an increasingly hostile foreign power. Moreover, it has little control over how the program operates — including the production of rockets that could put U.S. astronauts at risk.
This was meant to be a temporary arrangement while the U.S. developed its own capabilities through government partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing. Indeed, the U.S. had hopped to quickly move beyond dependence on Russia’s spacecraft with its costs and failures.
That progress, however, has been plagued with setbacks. The initial agreement between these companies and the U.S. government was for both SpaceX and Boeing to pass final certification tests in 2017. But a Government Accountability Office report from July 2018 indicates that both SpaceX and Boeing are likely to miss a November 2019 deadline for safety certifications. Both companies still have issues to work out with their spacecrafts.
NASA, remaining optimistic about U.S. progress, has already selected astronauts to participate in test flights.
Perhaps that optimism is justified as SpaceX launched and landed a first-stage booster rocket at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Oct. 7. It was the first time that company has competed such a test on the West Coast and follows several successful launches and rocket recoveries at Florida launch sites.
Hopefully, this progress will continue as with current projected delays and the suspension of manned launches from Russia, there is likely to be a gap in access to the space station leaving it unable to function.
In the long run, the Russian rocket failure might signal that that the U.S., if Boeing and SpaceX deliver on their promises, is well-positioned to dominate the industry. For now, though, it is a troubling reminder that the U.S. is dependent on Moscow for access to the International Space Station while domestic projects continue to drag on.