Ukraine Crisis: Russian Roulette in Space?
Members of the media photograph Soyuz rocket launch in October 2012 from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
Image: Ron Garan floating in the Internationa
An Awe-Inspiring Space Station Odyssey Launched aboard the Soyuz TMA-21 space vehicle on April 4, 2011, NASA astronaut Ron Garan was a part of the Expedition 27/28 crew. He remained in orbit for over five months, landing in Kazakhstan on Sept. 16. During his stay, Garan kept the world updated with a constant stream of photographs from space, capturing everything from aurorae, wildfires, hurricanes and, remarkably, a meteor. This slide show is devoted to a small selection of some of his best pictures. The entire collection can be browsed on Garan's TwitPic stream. Before leaving orbit, Garan posted a blog on the "Fragile Oasis" website about his inspiring space station odyssey. Here's some excerpts from what he had to say.
The Cupola "I've been told that when Sasha Samokutyaev, Andrey Borisenko and I land later today, we will have spent 164 days in space (162 on the International Space Station), made 2,624 orbits of the Earth, and will have flown 65,340,224 miles (but who's counting?)," Garan said. "After all this time in space, separated from the Earth, I have come to know a new existence up here. An existence that is without many of the sights, sounds, smells and feel of life on Earth, but an existence with its own share of special defining qualities." Shown here, Garan is photographed in the space station's cupola, looking down on the coast of Australia. The next day, he returned to Earth.
Aurora As energetic particles from the sun impact the upper atmosphere of Earth, a beautiful light show erupts. As solar activity was pretty high during Garan's tour of duty, he had numerous opportunities to photograph the majestic and dynamic aurora. Shown here, the green auroral light (generated by excited oxygen molecules) snakes over our planet with the constellation of Orion hanging overhead.
Irene As Hurricane Irene barreled toward the East Coast of the U.S. in August, Garan and his crewmates had the best perspective on the sheer size of the storm. Shown here, on Aug. 27, Irene had just made landfall.
Eye of Katia As hurricane season marched on, another hurricane threatened the U.S. Fortunately, Hurricane Katia proved to be less of a threat than Irene. Garan captured this detailed photograph of Katia's eye on Sept. 5 as he flew overhead. The hurricane was passing through the Caribbean, near Puerto Rico.
Texas Wildfires It's not only natural disasters spawned by hurricanes that are obvious from space. As the space station orbited over the drought-ridden state of Texas, a number of wildfires are obvious, belching smoke high into the atmosphere.
Sunglint "I will miss watching the Earth transform from day into night and night into day sixteen times a day," said Garan. The space station is treated to 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets per day, so there are endless opportunities to see how the sun transforms the land and ocean below. Shown here, sunlight bounces off the waters surrounding Newfoundland on Aug. 27.
A Meteor! In Space! "I will miss watching meteors streak across our atmosphere below us, the rapid fire paparazzi flashbulbs of lightening storms at night, and flying so close to dancing curtains of auroras that you feel like you could reach out and touch them," he said. In this impressive (and now famous) photograph, Garan's photography skills came into play, capturing a meteor during the Perseid Meteor Shower in mid-August.
Night Lights As the space station passes over the night-side of Earth, human activity is traced with light. Seen here, Garan managed to photograph the River Nile delta in Egypt...
Icebergs! An iceberg floats off Petty Harbour (Newfoundland) in the Labrador Sea. "It's bigger than my hometown of Yonkers, NY," Garan remarked.
Sunrise "I will miss looking at our beautiful planet and the grandeur of our universe from this vantage point," said Garan.
Sunset... and Moonset? Setting almost simultaneously, the sun disappears over the horizon, followed closely by a crescent moon.
The Shuttle During Space Shuttle Atlantis' (and Shuttle Program's) final mission, Garan snapped the orbiter as it approached for docking on July 10, 2011. The shuttle's cargo bay doors are open, showing the cylindrical Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module used to resupply the space station. Caribbean islands form the backdrop.
Find out what went on during the shuttle's final mission to the International Space Station in our special photographic tour.
Rocky Russian relations could leave U.S. astronauts without rides to the International Space Station.
Since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, Russia has had a monopoly on flying crews to the orbital outpost. The only other country currently flying people in space is China, which is not a member of the 15-nation space station partnership.
That leaves the United States in a vulnerable position as it ponders options to diffuse a tense standoff between Russia and Ukraine.
For now, the U.S.-Russian space partnership is insulated from the political whirlwind generated by Russia’s decision to move troops into the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea last week, fueling fears of a full-fledged invasion.
"We are continuing to monitor the situation," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday.
"Everything for us continues to be nominal," he said.
Bolden noted that the space station has been through “multiple international crises” since crews began living there full-time on Nov. 2, 2000. That includes the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over break-away regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have maintained a professional, beneficial and collegial working relationship through the various ups and downs of the broader U.S.-Russia relationship and we expect that to continue throughout the life of the (space station) program and beyond," NASA added in a statement.
The situation could have a silver lining. NASA has been investing in private companies that want to build and fly commercial passenger spaceships with the goal of breaking U.S. reliance on Russia for station crew transportation by 2017.
"It certainly increases the impetus for the United States to lessen its dependence on the increasingly fickle and prickly (Pres. Vladimir) Putin's Russia," Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, wrote in an email to Discovery News.
The Obama Administration’s budget request for NASA for the year beginning Oct. 1 includes $848 million for the agency’s so-called “Commercial Crew” initiative. An additional $250 million for the program could come from a proposed supplemental budget, NASA’s chief financial officer Beth Robinson said.
Currently, NASA is backing space taxi designs by Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. Depending on funding, NASA hopes to have at least two firms complete spaceship development and sign contracts for flight services.
"It seems to me that the main message right now is that the U.S. has put itself in a situation of dependency on our relationship with Russia and that ought to be unacceptable,” John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University, told Discovery News.
"Hopefully, this will serve as a wake up call -- or another wake up call -- that the administration and Congress should even accelerate funding for Commercial Crew to get rid of the dependency as quickly as possible," he said.
NASA is not the only agency potentially facing a game of Russian space roulette.
A United Launch Alliance unmanned rocket, used almost exclusively to fly U.S. military satellites, has a Russian engine.
"ULA protects our customers and ourselves from any supply disruption by maintaining a two- to three-year safety stock of engines in our factory," company spokeswoman Jessica Rye wrote in an email to Discovery News.
"In addition, if there is any extended disruption ... our U.S. supplier has demonstrated the capability to co-produce the engine or build a replacement engine in the United States," Rye wrote.
Scott Pace, who succeeded Logsdon at the Space Policy Institute, said the United States has options to sanction Russia that would spare the countries’ key space relationships.
"Space is one of these things where there is mutual self-interest going on. I can think of other more-targeted economic sanctions rather than actions that are largely symbolic or would disproportionally hurt the U.S. side," Pace said.