From Russia, Without Love

There seem to be some culture clashes between the American and Russian space programs.

To quote the article:

The Russians consider themselves less rigid and more inventive than the Americans, who tend to follow every letter in the technical manuals, said Sergei Gorbunov, a spokesman for the Russian Space Agency.

"Here in Russia, we are more flexible in our approach to technical problems,'' Gorbunov said. "The Americans are more conservative in dealing with technical problems, but this isn't a fault.''

Whether it's a fault or not, the irony can't be lost on anyone who lived through the Cold War, in which American ingenuity and flexibility was ostensibly matched against Soviet bureaucracy, and those American characteristics supposedly defeated the Soviet Union. It's particularly ironic, considering that such a perception would have been perfectly valid, in almost every sphere other than the space program, at least since the 1960s, when the Americans won the race to the moon.

Of course, NASA's culture has been a subject of much discussion since the release of the Gehman Commission's report on the loss of Columbia in February, but such discussion (and criticism) from that report has focused not on NASA's lack of flexibility, but rather on its lassitude in following its own established safety procedures, increasing the irony still further.

And after all, it's not at all clear that NASA's approach is superior to the Russians'. While the Russians have had several near disasters (a fire on their space station, and a collision with it) NASA has lost over a dozen astronauts in two shuttle disasters, while the Russians have only lost four (and none in the past three decades), in the four-plus decades since the beginning of the human space race.

One could attribute that to greater ambition (NASA puts up over half a dozen at a time, whereas the Soviets and now Russians have never launched more than three at a time), but both programs have so little experience in absolute numbers, compared to any other endeavor, that such comparisons are probably meaningless.

Regardless, because we share a space station, such a cultural difference is a real problem. Perhaps it's time to consider a way to end it--with a divorce.

And not just for potential "irreconciliable differences."

The space station is in the wrong orbit.

Its high inclination is useful for earth observations, because it allows a greater view of the earth than one that only flew over low latitudes, but that's the only real benefit to it. On any other technical measure, a lower inclination would be better.

Lower inclination would be less exposed to the cosmic radiation that's more prevalent at higher latitudes. Lower inclination would also make it easier to reach, and allow more payload for any (non-Russian) launch vehicle, and thus reduce operating costs. Lower inclination would make it potentially useful as a staging point for missions beyond earth orbit (a use that is essentially precluded by its current location). In fact, a proposal was made just a couple of days ago to move it for just the latter reason.

No, there's really only one real reason that the space station is in the orbit that it is--politics. In 1993, the Clinton-Gore administration decided that they would finally completely pervert the nation's space program from one that was supposedly purposed for opening up the high frontier to one that provided foreign aid to Russian space scientists, in hope that they wouldn't twist their talents to selling nuclear and rocketry expertise to countries like North Korea, Iran, and yes, Iraq. They decided to bring the Russians into the space station program.

There was only one problem. The high-latitude Russian launch sites don't permit launches to low earth orbital inclinations of less than 51.6 degrees.

Thus, our escalator to nowhere didn't even start at the ground floor.

But that was then, and this is now. The Bush administration has no great desire to keep the Russians involved in the space station debacle, and there are rumors that they'd like to actually do something visionary in space. One way to make lemonade out of the ISS lemon might be to move it to a useful location, and if the Russians don't like it, they can go build their own, since the reality of the program was that they were never true partners. They were really simply subcontractors, and not very good ones, because much of the money sent to the Russian government in the nineties for space station hardware instead went to yachts, BMWs and Cayman bank accounts for the well-connected in the Russian government.

But is such a move feasible?

Well, yes, but it won't be cheap. Changing orbital planes in low earth orbit is not trivial--going from the current inclination of 52 degrees to the more conventional NASA one of 28 (the latitude of Cape Canaveral) requires about 40 percent as much velocity change as getting into orbit in the first place.

Fortunately, unlike launches, it needn't be done all at once, so there are a lot of options for doing so, over a long period of time (perhaps a few years). Without doing an extensive analysis, I'd be surprised if it couldn't actually be done for $1 billion or so, even with NASA's ways of doing business.

Now, that's a lot of money to you and me, but to NASA, and a nation that has already spent many times that much on a space station whose use remains elusive, it's a pittance, and possibly one well worth it.

So, would Russia, to use another old Cold War metaphor, become the spy that was sent back out in the cold, when it came to space?

Not necessarily. They've been negotiating with the French to use their near-equatorial launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. If they can start launching their vehicles out of that site, they'll be able to get into almost any orbital inclination they please, and can continue to support and participate in even a newly relocated space station.

As long, of course, as they're finally willing to pay their own way. If not, then it might be hasta la vista, petrushka.


While the response to last week's column was mostly positive, I got one that was a little less so, from Tom in Sarasota:

I agree that cutting funding for solar research is short sighted, but your attempt to tie it into the global warming debate is as absurd as blaming solar flares for the California wildfires. Just once could anyone that writes for Fox "news" just do a story without slipping in thier idiotic philosophy and I guess not.

Well, Tom, I'm not sure what Fox News' philosophy and agenda are--I just write a column for them once a week, on a subject of my own choosing. They've certainly never suggested that I write anything with any particular slant. What I find absurd is the notion that the sun has no relevance to the temperature of the earth, as would any scientist who understands the history of the solar system and basic thermodynamics.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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