NASA has no more shuttles to send. But SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin do.
Russia insists it will bring the American astronaut home. The rest is just warmongering rumour. Mark Vande Hei, who is set to break the U.S. record for longest duration in orbit, will depart the International Space Station as scheduled aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on March 30 and land in Kazakhstan, from where NASA will fly it to American soil.
Let’s assume this is true. Believe Dimitri Rogozin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, who today says he was joking when posting a video suggesting that Vande Hei would be left behind.(1) Suppose Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has no not recently shown any respect for international law, will behave reasonably in this case. Even though Vande Hei returns safe and sound, the volume of space travel increases. Sooner or later someone will get stuck.
If that happens, there’s a better chance than ever that humanity could stage a successful rescue.
First, refusing to help a stranded astronaut would be a serious violation of international law, specifically outer space law. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1968 Rescue and Return Agreement oblige the parties to treat each other’s astronauts not as foreign nationals but as “envoys of mankind”. Parties, including the United States and Russia, should assist people facing emergency situations and facilitate their safe return to their own countries. And if the parties have to help in an emergency, they certainly can’t cause the emergency in the first place, as would happen if the Soyuz refused to let Vande Hei on board. Still, with regular flights to the ISS and growing space tourism, the problem of someone staying in space isn’t going away.
In fact, the probability increases. In a few years, NASA will stop periodically boosting the ISS to maintain its orbit and allow it to burn up in the atmosphere. In its place, several private companies (as well as India and China) plan to build space stations. NASA plans to use them as jumping off points to send manned missions to the Moon and Mars.
And maybe beyond.
In short, between commercial tourists, space station crews and, before long, private mining crews, there will soon be a huge crowd up there. If a group is stranded, we Earthlings will have to go get them.
The prospect of a mission to retrieve stranded space travelers evokes the glossiness of “hard” science fiction. Yet if the perspective is science fiction, it’s less “The Martian” – a team of brilliant government scientists firing government rockets – than “The Man Who Sold the Moon” – the prescient novel by Robert Heinlein’s 1950 on space travel developed by industry rather than government.
Why? Because the last space shuttle retired in 2011. Even though NASA has the capability to launch a rescue vehicle, NASA does not have any vehicle to launch.
On the other hand, in addition to the Russian Soyuz and a few other government-owned spacecraft, there are a host of private vehicles. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and Space-X all flew into space last year. Boeing is continuing with its Starliner program, although no one can quite say when the long-delayed capsule will be ready. Many other companies are planning to enter the business. (Not, alas, Pan Am.) In short, if someone were to get stranded, either by accident or on purpose, there are more options today than ever before.
Critics complain that space tourism is only for the wealthy and is bad for the environment. May be. But it’s not private industry’s fault that the United States is about to give up space. And if we continue to send people there – and I hope we do – more rescue options are better than less.
Again, consider the current moment. When Rogozin posted his video suggesting Vande Hei could be left on the ISS, Elon Musk replied that the Dragon Crew vehicle used by Space-X could be ready to go soon. When the United States announced its intention to sanction Roscosmos, the always talkative Rogozin was quick to troll President Biden on Twitter: “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the ISS from uncontrolled deorbiting? and a fall in the United States or Europe?” The answer to Rogozin’s mocking question is: whoever lands there. A spacecraft from any private vendor bringing in people or supplies could easily carry enough extra fuel to give the space station a boost as needed.
I have long feared that we have lost our ability to contemplate the cosmos and lose ourselves in wonder. Our addiction to screens causes us to look down rather than up. Without the war, I suspect few Americans would know of the record that Vande Hei is about to break. His heroism in the cause of science and exploration, if noticed, would have been quickly forgotten.
We shouldn’t wait for tragedy to celebrate the joy of exploration. And while it seems odd to type those words, as the government retreats from regular space travel, I’m grateful that private industry is filling the void.
(1) When Rogozin responded to international sanctions by promising his agency would back off from commitments to launch European vehicles from Equatorial Guinea, it turned out he was serious business.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the United States Supreme Court. Her novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and her latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Lawyer Who Shot America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”