Russia Strong-arms US in Space Race

Now that tensions are high over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Republic of Crimea, Russia is threatening to cease US access to the International Space Station (ISS).  Additionally, Russia plans to ban the US from purchasing rocket engines used to launch military satellites into space.  This strategic political move comes in response to the US’s sanctions limiting exports to Russia.  After the US Space Shuttle stopped operating in 2011, the only existing mode of traveling to the ISS is Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, putting the power of the space race back in Russia’s hands.  No one is quite sure how Russia will pull off its vow to stop carrying US astronauts to the ISS via Soyuz once 2020 rolls around.  An alternative to the Space Shuttle, the SpaceX manned Dragon craft, is the most likely candidate since NASA’s Orion would not be ready for launch until 2021.

This decision comes at the tail end of a larger effort to revamp Russia’s space exploration efforts.  President Vladimir Putin recently signed a declaration to split the Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) into two, forming a new organization.  The state-run United Rocket and Space Corporation (URSC) will be in charge of rocket and space equipment production, including the development, creation, testing, technical servicing and utilization of military equipment, rockets and their components.  On the other hand, Roscosmos will maintain the state contract, coordination and operation of its research institutes and ground infrastructures.  By creating two institutions, Russia hopes to streamline production and improve quality control, putting an end to disastrous situations like last July’s proton rocket crash.  Space related initiatives have received negative feedback in the past from the Russian Audit Chamber because the industry spends four times more than the global average on poor quality technology.  Nonetheless, Russia still plans to pursue up to five lunar missions between 2015 and 2020 to examine the Moon’s surface resources.

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Journey to the Red Planet

That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  When Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on an alien terrain – and one that wasn’t Earth’s – in 1969 and uttered these words, he instilled fascination and awe in the hearts of millions.  Many have fantasized the exploration and colonization of our sister planet, but the prospect of earthlings actually traveling to Mars has never been so attainable.

Now we’ve got another “space race” brewing and everyone wants to make their mark.  For years, rovers have mapped Mars’ landscape, transmitting data and images to eager scientists.  Currently, several organizations around the world are investing in technology to thrust mankind into relatively unknown territory.

An emerging private spaceflight program Mars One, based in the Netherlands, announced that it is in the process of forging partnerships with leading technology companies to develop the means necessary for exploration.  By 2025 – a mere 11 years from now – Mars One plans to form a human colony on the red planet.

Before they continue this pursuit, however, the lander and satellite would need to test technologies necessary to sustain life.  For example, spacesuit designers are currently testing a prototype to see if it could withstand Mars’ atmosphere.  Any suit for a human explorer must provide plentiful oxygen, comfortable temperature, and pressure and radiation shields.

Toxins present in the dust may also pose a threat to human health, so the suits need to withstand yet another element.  Many are skeptical of these suits’ ability to control such a tall order of requirements.  To test the dexterity, the Austrian Space Program set up obstacle courses in four separate locations.  Among the suits tested were the NDX-2 suit by the Human Spaceflight Laboratory at the University of North Dakota.

Another initiative, led by NASA, will send out deep-space explorer Orion this fall.  Launching 3,600 miles above Earth, Orion’s maiden voyage will be unmanned and will, eventually, carry a human crew to Mars.

While many organizations are making efforts to take humans to a whole new world, they still rely on crowd funding and sponsorship to develop the necessary technology.  They also need young, innovative minds (like yours) to survive!