Star Wars: USA vs Russia Aboard the ISS

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/05/2015 01:30:00 AM
Geopolitics (astropolitics?) 400 km above Earth.
Space, the final frontier. These are the very last few voyages of American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS)[sic]. As Russia and the United States bash each other in every field of international endeavor, it was perhaps inevitable that cooperation in manned space flights would be another victim. Before I get to that, however, some background on what's coming up in 2015. The most recent issue of TIME features NASA's latest experiment in how living in space for an extended period causes changes human physiology. To accomplish this experiment, they are sending astronaut Scott Kelly to stay aboard ISS for one year beginning in March, while his identical twin brother (and erstwhile astronaut) Mark Kelly will serve as the "control" specimen. What is interesting in this day and age of mutual US/Russian distrust is that Russian cosmonaut--this term has been used since the Soviet era and has stuck ever since--Mikhail Korienko will be assisting in the experiment:
But most of all, Mark, 50, knows Scott, 50—which is how it is with brothers, especially when they’re identical twins, born factory-loaded with the exact same genetic operating system. The brothers’ connection will be more important than ever beginning in March, when Scott takes off for a one-year stay aboard the space station, setting a single-mission record for a U.S. astronaut.

Scott will be partnered in his marathon mission with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. They, in turn, will be joined by a rotating cast of 13 other crew members, all of whom will be aboard for anywhere from 10 days to six months, conducting experiments and reconfiguring various station modules for the arrival of privately built crew vehicles, which could come early as 2017...

Here, the science must yield a bit to the wild card of human emotion, and even a veteran like Scott may have trouble wrapping his mind around the scope of the mission he’s about to undertake. His flight begins on March 28, but he has to leave the U.S. on Feb. 16, since he will take off from the Russians’ Baikonur launch complex. 
OK, there are two striking things in the above excerpt. First, that the Russians are still willing to help out shows that cosmonauts and astronauts share a camaraderie their earthbound equivalents do not. From space, we are reminded of how fragile our shared planet is, etc. Second, note how Scott Kelly needs to head to Russia to reach ISS. This part is easy to explain. With the discontinuation of the space shuttle program in 2011, the NASA has relied on Russia to get its astronauts to the ISS. (Incidentally, Mark Kelly was aboard the last space shuttle flight.) In another tit-for-tat action, Russia has indicated that it will no longer permit American astronauts to reach the station in 2020:
Russia, for its part, does not have the economic clout to play tit-for-tat with the United States on economic sanctions, but it has moved to hurt the United States’ space program by denying the United States access to the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2020.

The ISS is the single most expensive structure constructed by humanity, at a cost of around $150 billion. The United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) footed a plurality of the cost to construct the ISS, contributing around $58.7 billion plus the costs of the 36 space shuttle flights that were required to construct the installation. Russia footed $12 billion of the ISS’s budget. Despite the United States’ contributions to the ISS, Russia is able to bar the United States from accessing the station by denying NASA access to Russian rocket engines, which are used to transport goods and personnel into space and back. In particular, the only way to reach the station right now is Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. After discontinuing its own space shuttle program, NASA has no immediate way of reaching the ISS without years of research and development of a new space-travel platform.
Hence the added attention given to NASA programs already in the pipeline at the USS like the experiment with identical twins. Needless to say, the arrangement with Russia has become increasingly uncomfortable in recent months:
Since NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, it has been paying the Russian government about $70 million a seat to transport U.S. astronauts to the space station. That arrangement, which was always intended to be temporary, has become strained in recent months amid tensions between Russia and the West over the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.
Hence NASA has contracted Boeing and Elon Musk's Space X to make manned flights to ISS. Mind you, Space X already makes unmanned cargo deliveries to Space X, so sending astronauts appears to be an incremental activity. What is new here is that manned space flight will be contracted out to a private provider for the first time in US history. If things go according to plan, this should be accomplished by 2017--two years from now:
NASA plans to choose Boeing and SpaceX for multibillion-dollar contracts to lift astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA announced Tuesday. NASA expects to certify the capsules in 2017. The $6.8 billion contract includes two to six missions to the space station. NASA has paid Russia to ferry astronauts to the space station since retiring the final space shuttle in 2011. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. have already started carrying cargo to the station.
Interesting stuff-someone should write an extended analysis of it for Space Policy.