Politicians Use Progress Failure to Tout Their Positions

Politicians Use Progress Failure to Tout Their Positions

The launch failure of Russia’s Progress cargo ship destined for the International Space Station (ISS) provided fuel for politicians on both sides of the debate over the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.

Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) used it to argue the criticality of the U.S. developing its own national capabilities to deliver cargo to the ISS. Both Senators champion NASA development of a new rocket, the Space Launch System, and crew module, the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Although the main purpose of that system is taking astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, it would be a backup capability for supplying the ISS if commercial cargo and commercial crew systems do not materialize. The two Senators are skeptics of the commercial initiative and want NASA to develop a new system.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), on the other hand, is an enthusiastic promoter of commercial crew and cargo. He used the failure to call on NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden to “propose an emergency transfer of funding from unobligated balances in other programs, including the Space Launch System, to NASA’s commercial crew initiative.” Rohrabacher wants to accelerate and possibly expand the efforts of the companies working on commercial crew.

Russia is continuing to investigate yesterday’s launch failure. Progress was launched by the usually reliable Soyuz rocket. That rocket is used for launches of many other Russian spacecraft — including the crew-carrying Soyuz capsules — but there are several versions of it. Russian space officials announced that a planned launch of a navigation satellite from its Plesetsk cosmodrome using a different variant of the rocket would be postponed until more is known about the failure.

Although there are not likely to be immediate impacts of the launch failure on ISS crew, which was recently resupplied by STS-135, it does highlight the operational risks of discontinuing the space shuttle program. Except for the 29 months that the space shuttle stood down after the 2003 Columbia tragedy, the ISS has been able to rely on a robust set of international spacecraft to bring crews and supplies.

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