Monday, May 19, 2014

Speeding Up Commercial Crew to Access the ISS

          by Brian Orlotti

SAS founder Henry Vanderbilt in 2011. Photo c/o SpaceNews.
In the May 13th, 2014 edition of its "Space Access Update" house newsletter, the Phoenix, AZ based Space Access Society (SAS) put forth insightful commentary on Russia, Soyuz, International Space Station (ISS) access and possession, the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, and the Space Launch System (SLS), all within the context of the current Crimean crisis.

The newsletter even put forward strategies for dealing with Russia's recent retaliation against Western sanctions arising from the Crimean crisis, which are well worth taking a close look at.

The first portion of the newsletter discussed the need for contingency plans for ISS access in the event of Russia cutting off the use of Soyuz vehicles or physically "annexing" the rest of the station. Three rationales for contingencies were offered:
  • The Crimean crisis may persist for several years, since reversing its recent policies would likely damage the current Russian government's domestic support base.
  • By preparing a visible, effective contingency should access to Soyuz be cut off, further escalation could be prevented.  A US spacecraft on standby to carry crew and supplies up to the ISS would greatly weaken the leverage of a Soyuz cutoff and thus reduce the likelihood of it being done. 
  • Should the US allow a situation to arise where other ISS partners are forced to renegotiate station access with Russia or lose it entirely, doubts could be cast on other US commitments to allies.
For a Soyuz cutoff contingency plan, the SAS felt that NASA should immediately ask its third round commercial crew contractors (the Boeing Company, which is developing the the CST-100 spacecraft/Atlas V system; Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is developing the Dream Chaser spaceplane/Atlas V system; and Space Exploration Technologies, which is developing the Dragon spacecraft/Falcon 9 system.) to specify how quickly they could each accelerate their first crewed ISS flight and what would be required to do so.

This would be especially important in the case of the Boeing Company and Sierra Nevada Corporation, which are dependent on the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V common core booster, which is itself dependent on the Russian built RD-180 rocket engine to power its first stage. As outlined in the April 15th, 2014 Defense News article "Reports: Russia Blocks RD-180 Engine Sales for Pentagon Programs," Russian officials have considered blocking future RD-180 engines sales.

To accomplish the mission and obtain ISS access in a timely manner, the SAS recommended that NASA instruct its commercial crew contractors to factor an increased level of acceptable risk into their proposals. NASA should then select the proposal with the best chance of earliest emergency access capability and expedite its implementation, with at least one other competitor kept moving forward at a resource-reduced level.

For an 'ISS annexation' contingency plan, the SAS advocated building and launching a new space station as soon as possible. To avoid a repeat of the $100Bln USD needed to build the ISS (an utter non-starter in the current economy), and to bypass the considerable risks of relying on the SLS, the SAS advised that NASA utilize existing surplus ISS hardware while drawing more on the services of US commercial space firms already participating in the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.

Specifically, SAS advised that NASA should utilize commercial space habitat modules in the new station, while retaining and expanding the program management structures that have worked so well in the existing commercial cargo and crew programs.

Brian Orlotti.
The SAS' plan of action offers the prospect of not only de-escalating the Crimean crisis (from a space perspective, at least), but of providing the nascent commercial space industry an opportunity to shine. A vibrant, thriving private space industry would not only help alleviate a current crisis, but also have effects far beyond it.

Long after the rhetoric and posturing is forgotten, the energy, creativity and opportunity of a new age will remain.

Brian Orlotti is a Toronto-based IT professional and the treasurer of the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA).

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