NASA, Russia Agree to Studies, Standards Setting for Future Human Space Missions

NASA, Russia Agree to Studies, Standards Setting for Future Human Space Missions

NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, signed an agreement today on cooperating in studies of future joint human space flight opportunities.  In separate press releases, the agencies focused on different aspects of that cooperation, but the shared goal is jointly expanding human presence beyond the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA’s carefully worded statement struck a balance between announcing a new effort reaching out to Russia as an international partner while reinforcing its ongoing relationships with U.S. industry through the NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement partnerships with Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and Nanoracks.

Conceptual drawing of Deep Space Gateway and Orion spacecraft presented by NASA’s Greg Williams to NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration and Operations Committee July 25, 2017.

NASA is hoping to win approval to build a Deep Space Gateway that would be placed into orbit around the Moon (“cis-lunar space”) as the next step in human exploration.  It would serve as a departure point for crews headed to Mars, and could also be used to support lunar surface missions.  NASA itself does not currently have any plans to return humans to the lunar surface, but stresses that it would be delighted to support commercial or international partners who are willing to build the systems needed to get to and from the surface and conduct surface operations

NASA does not have the money to do that.  In fact, at the moment it does not even have permission to build the Gateway.  NASA officials have been providing briefings on the Gateway concept for many months, but the Trump Administration did not include any funding for it in the FY2018 budget request and Congress does not appear poised to add any for it explicitly.  NASA’s statement today refers to it as in a state of “concept formulation.”

Nevertheless, the idea has taken off with potential industry and international partners as the agreement signed today indicates.

NASA officials are meeting with their international counterparts this week at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, where this agreement was signed.

Russia is also strapped for money for its human spaceflight program and looking for international partnerships to move forward.  In its announcement, Roscosmos focused on the development of “unified” international technical standards for human spaceflight for hardware such as docking ports and life support systems.  Roscosmos also said discussions included the potential for Russian rockets to be used, although NASA’s statement said only that its new Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft are the cores of its deep space human exploration program.

The announcement comes just one week before the world celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Space Age, which began on October 4, 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.  At the time, the Soviet Union and the United States were engaged in a space race to demonstrate which country had the most technical prowess with space activities as the preeminent public image of that contest.

Although the Soviets achieved many space firsts in the 1960s, it was the United States that first landed men on the Moon and returned them safely to Earth from 1969-1972.

No other country has achieved that feat.  The last footsteps on the Moon are those of Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison (Jack) Schmitt in December 1972.

The early 1970s was a period of détente between the two superpowers and they jointly executed the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project where three astronauts in an Apollo spacecraft docked with two cosmonauts in a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft.  Plans for additional human spaceflight cooperation fell victim to deteriorating U.S.-Soviet relationships in the late 1970s and most of the 1980s.

Those relationships improved in 1989 when then-Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to tear down the Berlin Wall separating what was then East and West Germany and even more in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  U.S.-Russian human spaceflight cooperation has burgeoned since then with U.S. space shuttle flights to Russia’s Mir space station in the 1990s and Russia joining the U.S.-European-Japanese-Canadian partnership to build what is now known as the ISS.

Despite the decline in the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and otherwise intervened in Ukraine, NASA and Roscosmos continue to work together in operating ISS and planning for the future.  The announcement today is a step in that direction.

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