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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
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February 26, 2024

The Counterculture Watch: Treading Through Russian Space

During the past summer, the world witnessed the power of a resurgent Russia during the brief but troubling war between Russia and Georgia. Meanwhile, hesitant governments, primarily those in the West, made hollow gestures of protest against Russia’s gross violation of Georgian sovereignty. Many have declared that the “Russian Bear” has reared up on its legs again and has begun to stake political influence over the former Soviet republics and neighbors, including the US-friendly Ukraine and Turkey.

If any Americans thought the emergent “Bear Problem” couldn’t get worse, they are mistaken. NASA made plans to shut its space shuttle program in 2010 for a five-year hiatus. During this time, the current space shuttles in NASA’s aging fleet will be retired in favor of new shuttles, which remain in the works like many of the other NASA renovation programs.

In the meantime, the only way for the astronauts of the world to get to space is with Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. There are no real alternatives because the space programs of other nations, like those of Japan and China, are still in their infancy and do not have cooperative agreements with the US. Ultimately, this may not matter since America’s astronauts cannot currently use Soyuz spacecraft, since they will need Congress to waive the stipulation in the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 that prohibits the American government from making contracts with Russia due to its support of Iran’s nuclear program.

The days of cooperation, which started in the early 1990’s, and the feelings of camaraderie of that era are now gone due to Earthly tensions, primarily in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It’s a sad and scary situation reminiscent of the Cold War space race. Our government will act as it always has: splitting nays and yays along party lines. “Business as usual”, with the Democrats supporting the waiver to the Nonproliferation Act and the Republicans opposing it.

The responses of the American politicians have varied. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) gave a glum assessment of getting American astronauts into space in the Lakeland Ledger: “In an election year, it was going to be very difficult to get that waiver to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to an increasingly aggressive Russia, where the prime minister is acting more and more like a czar…Now, I’d say it’s impossible.” Sen. Nelson supports the waiver because the US will have no means to get their men back to Earth and would rather use Russia’s shuttles rather than letting other nations get ahead in their space programs, especially in light of China’s recent success in its third launch into space with the Shenzhou VII spacecraft and the first spacewalk by one of its astronauts.

Such a notion makes me feel embarrassed and flabbergasted because America was once such a venerated leader in space exploration. Furthermore, we would be putting our space program at the mercy of the same Russians who invaded Georgia and is flexing its muscle in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It’s no wonder that there are many, like Sen. Dave Weldon (R-FL), who strongly oppose this move. “The concern I’ve had all along is that we just don’t know what the geopolitical landscape will be during those years we have to depend on Russia”, he said. “You look at the situation now, and relying on Russia looks like a pretty bad idea.”

Meanwhile, both John McCain and Barack Obama have said that they would support keeping the NASA shuttle program going beyond 2010, which could just be a short extension into 2011 for a technical fulfillment of this pledge. To me, this is more grandstanding by politicians who will not take decisive action to restore American glory as frontiersmen of the heavens. The question that must be asked is, how has it come to this?

Some see a midlife crisis for NASA, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. The Bush Administration and NASA leaders are implementing a “rebirth” through the infusion and incorporation of new technologies into America’s current space assets. The Bush administration has also decided to retire the shuttles and announced a far-reaching “vision for space exploration” in January 2004. Under this presidential initiative, NASA would stop using its maturing and precarious shuttle fleet and move to a new launching program, Constellation, erected around Ares rockets and Orion capsules that are designed to return astronauts to the Moon and investigate near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

While there are no evident reasons for the average American to be concerned about this decision to overhaul the space program, some in NASA have strong misgivings. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin’s own frustrations leaked out in an internal e-mail in August: “My own view is about as pessimistic as it is possible to be”, he said, referring to the shuttle program and the future. In that e-mail, according to the New York Times, he said the administration’s decision on “retiring the shuttle is a jihad rather than an engineering and program management decision.” Such language indicates to me that there is another conundrum ahead for the next president to handle, in addition to the burgeoning number pressing problems that stand against American interests on all fronts.

It also should be noted that, publicly, Griffin supports the Bush administration’s plan to retire the shuttle in two years. But people close to Griffin say he is troubled with the timetable. In the final analysis, we must conclude that the Bush Administration will seek to transform America’s space program and retire the aging fleet of space shuttles – despite reservations from top NASA officials, Presidential Candidates, and US Senators alike.

With the US economy in a state of crisis, there is just no way for our astronauts to get out of sharing the flight to the US taxpayer-funded International Space Station, the moon, or any other planet in our system within the foreseeable future. Earthly troubles may come before any endeavor to survey the galaxy’s majesty.

I can be reached for further discussion at [email protected]

About the Contributor
Dillon Zhou served as opinions editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2010-2011