During recent congressional testimony, the question was put to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, what if the current rift with Russia becomes so severe that the United States is denied access to the International Space Station?
Currently and at least until 2017 American astronauts can only hitch rides on the Russian Soyuz to get to the ISS, largely built with American tax payer’s money. In theory Russia could stop such flights, especially in the event of a military confrontation in Eastern Europe. It is considered a low probability event, though, since Russia is unlikely to be able to operate the ISS without American help.
Bolden’s answer was stark. If we lose access to the ISS he would recommend suspension of the development of the Orion deep space craft and the Space Launch System heavy lift rocket. The theory is that medical research on the ISS is vital for the sort of deep space missions that the Orion and the SLS are being built for.
The statement suggests that Bolden is severely history challenged. Decades ago the United States conducted a very robust deep space program. It was called Apollo which landing twelve men on the moon between 1969 and 1972.
History suggests that if the United States were to lose access to the ISS, it would not be necessary to suspend all hopes of human space flight as Bolden suggests. The Orion/SLS system would be repurposed for short term expeditions to the moon, using a commercially acquired lander such as being developed by the Golden Spike Company.
In the meantime NASA could help Bigelow Aerospace develop its proposed commercial space station built out of inflatable modules. The commercial space station could be supported by commercially developed, government financed spacecraft such as the SpaceX Dragon. Then the space agency could use that facility to conduct the needed research to prepare for long duration human expeditions to Mars.
Losing the ISS, either to Russian caprice or a disaster such as depicted in the film “Gravity,” would be a catastrophe. But it would not mean the end of American space flight.