On July 21, 2011, almost 42 years to the day since the United States won the race to the moon and supposedly the space race, the United States sent its manned space program on a course with an uncertain future. The final space shuttle mission, STS-135, not only marked the end of thirty years of manned space flight for the United States with the space shuttle system, but it also marked a new era for the space program inherited by the Russian Federation from the former Soviet Union.
With no successor to the space shuttle launch-ready, the United States is taking a lesson in supply/demand economics from Russian Federation, who is the only country now able to provide transport for United States’ astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The Russian Federation is taking this lesson to heart and is charging the Unites States $63 million dollars per seat to fly its astronauts to the ISS, which was primarily possible by the financial and space resources of the United States.
Politicians and pundits tout that the United States won’t be out of manned spaceflight forever and point to the federal government’s investment into commercial space to replace the space shuttle and take over the responsibility of manned spaceflight from NASA. Of the companies involved, Space X and its Dragon capsule are the closest to actually producing a man-rated spacecraft. However, the federal government has made no firm commitments to these space entrepreneurs with regard to manned launches and may decide it isn’t worth the investment given the availability of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
There is also the possibility that the Russian Federation may seek to preserve its new-found monopoly on manned spaceflight and use a portion of the money it is collecting from the United States to lobby Congress and the White House to preserve the status-quo. It may well also use its clout under the International Space Station Agreement to ensure that commercial spacecraft are either stalled or canceled by placing impediments to commercial spacecraft docking with the ISS or insisting on sweeping international regulations for commercial spacecraft.
Aside from the speculation of where we are going, there is the question of how the United States found itself in this situation. It could be argued that the political environment of the United States today seems to accept mediocrity and not the excellence exemplified during the era of Apollo and the space shuttle program. A more likely scenario, however, is that having won the race to the moon 42 years ago, the United States has become like the hare who decided that the race against the tortoise was already won and that it need not race anymore.
An anonymous author once said the race does not always go to the swift, but to the ones who keep running. Clearly the Soviet Union never stopped running after the United States declared victory 42 years ago when Armstrong stepped on the Moon, and its successor now finds itself holding the prize willingly relinquished by its former competitor in the realm of manned spaceflight. So, to the victor go the spoils and with it the consequences that follow.