BUDGET 2015: Ukraine Crisis Not Disrupting Russian Soyuz Flights, NASA Admin Says

Astronauts are expected to leave the International Space Station on schedule next week, and training continues on the ground, despite a crisis in Ukraine that is disrupting American and Russian relations, NASA’s administrator said on Tuesday (March 4).

Russian troops moved into the Crimea region of Ukraine last week, triggering condemnation from the United States and other International Space Station partners. At least one ISS participant, Canada, has removed its ambassador from Moscow.

“Everything is nominal right now in our relationship with the Russians. We continue to monitor the situation,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a conference call with reporters.

“The safety of our crews and our assets that has not changed. Safety is the No. 1 of NASA’s core values, so we are constantly doing contingency planning on the International Space Station for emergencies that might arise,” Bolden added, citing the emergency ammonia pump replacement in December as one such example.

“Those are the kinds of things we are always planning for, and in terms of the situation on the ground, we will go into contingency planning for that as the situation dictates. But right now, we don’t see any reason to do so,” he said.

Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Structure arms for Soyuz TMA-11M (the launching vehicle for Expedition 38) raise into place in this long-exposure photograph taken in Kazakhstan. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Russian Soyuz is currently the only way that NASA can bring humans to the space station, although the agency is developing a commercial crew program to start lifting off astronauts from American soil again in 2017. The Soyuz missions depart and return from Kazakhstan under an agreement Russia has with the former Soviet Union republic.

Expedition 38 (which includes Russia’s Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazanskiy, and NASA’s Michael Hopkins) is expected to depart the space station March 10. Expedition 39 is scheduled to head to the ISS March 25.

Bolden avoided questions asking what sorts of contingencies NASA would consider if tensions escalated, saying the agency would evaluate that situation if it occurs.

The administrator delivered his comments as part of a conference call concerning NASA’s 2015 budget, which would increase funding for the commercial crew program to $848.3 million, up 21% from a planned $696 million in 2014. Proposals are currently being evaluated and little was said about CCP, except to note that the amount of funding would allow the program to have “competition”, implying multiple companies will be funded.

 Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.
Russian Soyuz spacecraft, docked to the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

Russia was a key partner in the station’s construction from the beginning. It launched the first component (Zarya) to space in 1998, and the station today includes several other Russian modules and docking ports. Additionally, the Russians perform their own spacewalks using the Russian Orlan spacesuit. Cosmonauts also form a large percentage of ISS crews under space station utilization agreements.

NASA collaborations with Russia in space began with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, and expanded under an agreement that saw several shuttles dock with the Mir space station (and NASA astronauts train in Russia) in the 1990s.

Mars Space Colony Rockets Could Be Ready In 10 Years: SpaceX CEO

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a huge fan of Mars exploration and Mars colonies, and in a new interview he says a launch system to send people to the Red Planet could be available in 10 to 12 years. Requirements: it has to be big, and it has to be launched frequently to send millions of people and tons of cargo spaceward.

“We need to develop a much larger vehicle, which would be a sort of Mars colonial transport system, and this would be, we’re talking about rockets on a bigger scale than has ever been done before. It will make the Apollo moon rocket look small,” said Musk in a recent CBS interview, referring to the 363-foot (110-meter) behemoth that was the Saturn V.

In the short term, Musk said he is focused on making a crew transportation system that will reduce NASA’s reliance on Soyuz vehicles to bring astronauts into space (a situation that arose in 2011 after the agency retired the shuttle.) SpaceX is one of three companies funded by NASA to develop a spacecraft able to launch people (with the other two being Boeing and Sierra Nevada.)

Musk said SpaceX’s Dragon should be ready to do that in a couple of years. Meanwhile, there are abort tests to perform and other steps this year to get the spacecraft ready for that milestone.

Check out the entire Musk interview on the CBS website. Naturally, he doesn’t have the only vision for human Mars exploration out there, as private ventures Mars One and Inspiration Mars demonstrate.

Artist's concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a habitat for a Mars colony. Credit: NASA