The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has had a rough few years. In 2003 the Columbia space shuttle broke up in re-entry. It was the first space shuttle to go into orbit back around the early eighties and had just gotten a multi-million dollar cockpit upgrade (like touch-panel screens and such) only months prior to its destruction. About a year before the accident I met one of the two pilots from the very first shuttle mission and he couldn’t have been prouder of the Columbia and her 20-some years of service to NASA.
Of course, the fateful end of the Columbia brought about a halt of shuttle missions for months – putting the already behind schedule construction of the International Space Station even further behind. Considering the ISS was supposed to have been finished around 2001, the fact that 2008 is drawing close to an end and the station is still not finished only makes NASA look even more ridiculous. To make matters worse, NASA announced they were going backwards to the old Saturn V-style rocket design as was used to go to the moon in the sixties – and the Ares I and Ares V rockets won’t even be ready until the late teens.
Then two important events happened in the past couple months: NASA declared a 2010 retirement date for the shuttle fleet and Russia invaded Georgia.
The first event meant that the U.S. would be dependent on Russian rockets to take astronauts and supplies into space from 2010 through 2015. But now with U.S.-Russian diplomatic ties being stretched over the Georgia war all bets are off.
One story being run online points out just how fragile the situation is. It even quotes the director of NASA saying that: "If anything at all in that five years period goes wrong with the [U.S. access to the] Russian Soyuz, then we have no system to access the space station."
I like to hope things could go better than worse. If tensions between the U.S. and Russia increase and NASA loses its use of the Soyuz rocket, then it may force our government to finally give NASA the funding it needs to crank out the Ares V by 2012.
We’ll just have to wait and see.