In light of all of our (the U.S.’s) budget woes, the looming retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA program cancellations and shake-ups (Constellation,) and considering that most private commercial spacecraft (Cygnus, Dragon, etc.,) are still in the testing phase, it looks more likely than ever that there will be a lapse in U.S.’s ability to transport astronauts to orbit. NASA isn’t blind to this reality, and they just hired the Russian Federal Space Agency to provide transportation services to the International Space Station through the year 2014.
On that note, let me say a little something about the Russians’ warhorse spacecraft that’s slated to step in, Energia’s Soyuz.
Quite simply, it’s the most successful spacecraft ever built. On our side of the pale blue dot, we tend to think of the shuttle as the pinnacle of human-rated spacecraft, but in reality it’s really hard to top Soyuz’s reliability. The Russians have it down to a science. Soyuz has been flying since 1966 – that’s nearly 45 years – with only one fatal accident during that time. It’s a simple, Space Race-era design that even the Chinese have recently copied for their manned space program:
It’s a thing of beauty, frankly. And not in a sleek, aerodynamic way. Rather, it glares with a boxy, utilitarian sense of purpose, an indellible imprint from the Cold War that’s impossible to miss.
Now, take a moment and compare this to renderings of Dragon and Cygnus, the front-runners of U.S. commercial space transportation:
See a family resemblance? It’s only natural that new spacecraft would follow the design architecture set by the most successful craft in history. My point this evening is simply this: Having the Russians take charge of space transportation should be a point of concern with regard to the implications for the U.S.’s immediate competitiveness in space operations capability. Having the Soyuz take over should not, however, be a point of concern with respect to the safety of future astronaut crews. The Russians know how to build a spacecraft.
They’ve been doing it longer than anybody else.