by Nina Ippolito
The American people owe Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitri Rogozin a debt of gratitude.
Last week, in a fit of pique, Rogozin announced that Russia is taking the fight over Crimea all the way to space, both restricting the United States’ use of Russian rockets, and barring American access to the International Space Station after 2020.
Fortunately for us, that declaration may have done more to relaunch America’s manned spaceflight program than the best attempts of President Barack Obama, a succession of NASA administrators, and astrophysicist, television host, and charming son-of-a-bitch Neil de Grasse Tyson, combined.
Because if there’s anything Americans hate more than funding civilian agencies and promoting science, it’s being told what we can’t do.
On Thursday, Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), and Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), penned a letter to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. The three Southern congressmen demanded an assessment of the United States’ ability to reach the ISS independently (we’ve relied on Russian transport since 2011, when the space shuttle was decommissioned) and a list of what will be needed keep the ISS operational beyond the 2020 deadline.
It seems that by painting a metaphorical line down the middle of our shared space bedroom, Rogozin singlehandedly inspired three Southern conservative lawmakers to stop bloviating about cutting (non-military) government spending and defunding and defeating the Affordable Care Act, and to start asking what it will take to keep us in space. This, less than three weeks after a Republican-led House subcommittee failed to fully fund the program to design the next shuttle.
It’s ridiculous that a mounting international crisis and the prospect of securing home-district funding—Brooks’ district is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Palazzo’s district contains NASA’s Stennis Space Center—are what it takes to renew Congress’ commitment to civilian research and development, but so be it. Even if the charge is being led by a man who’s both the chair of the House Committee on Science and a staunch climate change denialist.
Sure, it would be nice if Smith, Palazzo, and Brooks were rededicating themselves to NASA out of a long-term commitment to scientific discovery and American ingenuity, and not because they’re grandstanding in the face of some Russian guy who told them no. But, seeing as NASA’s share of federal funding has been dropping since before we set foot on the moon, our ability to launch military satellites and conduct manned experiments in space will have to settle for what attention it can get:
For his part, Rogozin celebrated his diplomatic coup with a stunning pyrotechnic display on Friday, when a Russian Proton rocket carrying a telecom satellite mislaunched in Kazakhstan and crashed back to Earth, sprinkling debris across both Siberia and the Pacific Ocean. Maybe we should lend Rogozin the trampoline he suggested we use in lieu of Russian rockets.
Per aspera ad astra, all around.