The American Legion Magazine | 4.1.10
By Alan W. Dowd
As it stands now, the United States will retire its fleet of space shuttles—Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis—this year or next. Once the shuttles are mothballed and shipped off to the museums, the United Stateswill have no way of delivering its own into space, at least not for a while. Instead, U.S. astronauts will fly on Russian rockets. The hiatus could last several years.
Americans have largely responded to this alarming news with a been-there-done-that shrug. After all, shuttles have been circling the earth since 1981, Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969 and the Mercury Seven got the U.S. space program off the ground in 1958.
“It’s a very different world now, and it’s unreasonable to expect the same sort of excitement,” as John Logsdon of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute recently observed, referencing the era of U.S.-Soviet space competition.[i]
But whether or not Americans care, shutting down the shuttle program with no replacement at the ready could have a negative impact on America’s international standing and national security.
Unseemly and Dangerous
“The fundamental problem of NASA,” as Norman Augustine, chairman of the presidentially-appointed Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (HSPC), explains, “is that with the budget constraints it’s had on it, it doesn’t have enough money to develop the next generation system while it continues to operate the current system.”[ii]
In other words, a gap between the end of the shuttle and the beginning of its successor program was inevitable. The Bush administration planned to phase out the shuttle program in order to divert resources to the Constellation program, which would carry Americans back to the Moon and ultimately to Mars.
Bridging the gap by relying on Russia was always an imperfect workaround. Michael Griffin, NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, called it “unseemly in the extreme”—and understandably so.[iii] Under the current contract, the United States is forking over $780 million through 2011 to purchase seats and space on Russian rockets.[iv]
But it’s more than unseemly and imperfect. “It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that,” Griffin warned in February 2008. Russia’s blitzkrieg battering of Georgia later that year underscored the danger.
Faced with the worst economic crisis in decades, President Barack Obama was not eager to pour huge sums into continuing the shuttle program beyond 2010 or early 2011. (While it’s possible shuttles will fly in 2011, there are currently no funds for shuttle operations in FY11.[v]) Although NASA received an extra billion dollars from the 2009 stimulus package and a bump from Obama’s 2010 budget, there is “a drop-off in money for human spaceflight in the three years starting in 2011,” as The Washington Post noticed.[vi]
Moreover, the president’s long-delayed decision to name Griffin’s replacement suggests that space is not going to be a priority. As the Associated Press observed, the Obama administration nominated “nearly 200 officials, including an undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, an assistant labor secretary for veterans employment and training, and actor Kal Penn as a White House liaison” before naming Charles Bolden as NASA administrator.[vii]
Then, in early 2010, the Obama administration announced plans to end the Constellation program and use NASA resources to purchase more outsourced missions and to encourage the development of commercial rockets.[viii]
Congress may have other ideas. In 2009, Congress explicitly blocked NASA from canceling the Constellation program.[ix] And some in Congress have suggested extending the shuttle’s life.[x]
“NASA has got Pluto status right now,” as Paul Light of New YorkUniversity told the Associated Press.[xi] And it has for some time. Indeed, the post-shuttle gap is neither Bush’s nor Obama’s fault, but rather the result of decades of neglect and a confluence of circumstances and events.
One of those events was the Columbia disaster of 2003. Pre-Columbia, NASA had planned to deploy the shuttle until 2022. The loss of Columbia radically altered those plans.
The shuttle’s critics, citing the Columbia and Challenger disasters, have long argued that it is too expensive and too undependable. A prime example is science writer Jeffrey Kluger’s observation that shuttles “cost $400 million every time they fly, take months to prep for a mission and have a devastatingly poor safety record, as two lost ships and 14 lost lives attest.”
It’s worth noting, however, that the shuttle program settled into an efficient routine in the years between Challenger and Columbia. For 17 solid years, to be exact, the shuttle made the miracle of spaceflight so seemingly effortless and ordinary that it became a footnote. Takeoffs weren’t televised, spacewalks weren’t broadcast and landings weren’t reported. Carrying humans beyond that place where space and sky collide—and back—was just part of what America did.
In truth, the space shuttle was, and is, anything but ordinary. It lifts off like a rocket, races around the earth like a satellite, services space stations and telescopes, delivers satellites and sensors, and then glides home on a fountain of fire, before gently touching down like any passenger plane. And somehow it is only the failures—two over 29 years and more than 125 missions—that grab our attention.
Another circumstance contributing to America’s looming retreat from space is the mushrooming costs of homeland security, global military operations, bailouts, and the TARP and stimulus monstrosities—costs that were unforeseen a decade ago.
As to Washington’s neglect of NASA, Augustine notes that for decades NASA has been trapped in a situation “where ends don’t match means.”[xii] One HSPC member told The Washington Post that NASA is so cash-strapped that it needs some $50 billion above its current budget plans.[xiii]
The blame for the disconnect between NASA’s means and ends rests with policymakers from both parties—and with the American people—for shrugging at the manmade miracle of space flight, for not appreciating the nation’s reliance on space for everyday life, for not investing treasure and talent into space, for not facing reality.
For instance, transporting people into space and back will never be both risk-free and cheap. Americans and most of their representatives in Washington fail to realize that.
When Challenger exploded in 1986, policymakers should have recognized the obvious—that the shuttle was not immortal—and should have begun building the shuttle’s replacement. Instead, the Ares I-X rocket, which was test-launched in October 2009, was the first new crew-capable spacecraft unveiled by NASA in 30 years.[xiv] The mission-ready variant was supposed to be ready by 2017, but now may never see the launch pad given that it is part of the Constellation program.[xv]
The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is true. Consider the difference between Washington’s investment in the pre-Apollo NASA and the post-Columbia NASA.
Today, Washington’s NASA outlays amount to about 0.5 percent of federal spending. In the early 1960s, it was about 1.1 percent of federal spending.[xvi]By the time the Eagle had landed on the lunar surface, as Derek Leebaert writes in The Fifty Year Wound, the U.S. was tasking “300,000 workers at around 20,000 companies in all 50 states” on the space program.[xvii]
However, America’s short-attention span soon moved on to something else, and funding for space programs began to wither.
Deploying into space isn’t about geopolitical bragging rights nowadays. It’s about maintaining America’s national security edge, preserving America’s international standing, and holding the ultimate high ground to tilt the balance in favor of U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and, someday, “aerospace-men.”
To be sure, the Pentagon will continue to be active in space during the gap years without a shuttle. In fact, it is estimated that space programs related to national security receive two times the funding NASA receives.[xviii]
But as Xu Qiliang, commander of China’s air force, has observed, “if you control space, you can also control the land and the sea.”[xix] It’s hard to imagine that, during the gap years, the U.S. will be more capable of controlling space with unmanned satellites and Russian rockets than with Americans deploying into space on American vessels. It pays to recall that many shuttle missions have been strictly military missions, some of them highly classified.
In addition, in a realm beyond yet related to national security, surrendering the ability to carry astronauts into space promises to be a blow to America’s prestige. As Augustine observes, there are “leadership benefits of being among the world’s space-faring nations.”[xx] And there are consequences to not being a space-faring nation. Remember, we already live in an era when America is perceived as in decline.
We’ve been here before. Almost six years elapsed between the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 and America’s next manned space mission, the maiden voyage of Columbia. That period ominously coincided with what is generally considered the nadir of America’s post-World War II power.
The United States does have options.
To get around the shuttle’s safety issues and yet retain its delivery capabilities, Boeing engineer Mike Dahm has suggested flying it without astronauts. “De-man-rate it and fly it autonomous,” he told The Washington Post.
While that wouldn’t solve America’s manned-spaceflight gap, it would at least free the U.S. from dependence on Russia.
Among the alternatives cited by the HSPC are:
- extending the shuttle’s lifespan to 2015 “to preserve U.S. capability to launch astronauts into space” and to fully utilize the International Space Station,
- encouraging commercial-sector spacecraft development,
- developing a heavy-lift vehicle derived from the shuttle program’s infrastructure, and
- investing an additional $3 billion annually to create “a less constrained budget” to allow for “meaningful human exploration.”[xxi]
The administration is clearly not interested in that fourth option. However, being a space-faring nation, especially the leading nation in space, costs money.
“It’s clear to me that this nation could afford a strong human spaceflight program,” Augustine told a Senate committee in 2009, noting that Americans spend $7 billion gambling on the Super Bowl and $32 billion on movies. “It’s simply a question of priority.”
A Different World
Perhaps the Air Force space program will fill the gap. Perhaps private firms will rise to the occasion. Perhaps Russia will be a reliable partner. But it’s difficult to see much good coming out of this retreat from the high ground.
Consider America’s space stand-down from a different perspective: What if, in the midst of exploring, colonizing and securing the New World, Britain—the greatest seafaring power of its day—decided to mothball its naval fleet and rely on other countries to transport British men and material across the oceans? This much we know: Britain and the world would be very different today.
After America’s self-imposed exile from space is over, America and the world—and space—could be very different as well.
[i] Jacqui Goddard, “NASA rolls out Ares 1-X, successor to the shuttle—but will Obama let it fly?” The Times of London, October 21, 2009.
[ii] Remarks before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee, September 16, 2009.
[iii] Michael Griffin, Statement before the Committee on Science and Technology, February 13, 2008.
[iv] Michael Griffin, Statement before the Committee on Science and Technology, February 13, 2008.
[v] HSPC, Summary Report, September 8, 2009, p.3.
[vi] Joel Achenbach, “Hubble mission opens shuttle’s last act,” Washington Post, May 12, 2009.
[vii] Seth Borstein, “NASA faces deadline for tough decisions on shuttle,” Associated Press (April 22, 2009).
[viii] Fox News, “Obama to end NASA Constellation program,” January 29, 2010.
[ix] Robert Block and Mark Matthews, “Obama aims to ax moon mission,” Orlando Sentinel, January 27, 2010.
[x] Robert Block, “Obama officials: NASA to get $6 billion for commercial rockets,” Orlando Sentinel, January 27, 2010.
[xii] Remarks before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee, September 16, 2009.
[xiii] Joel Achenbach, “NASA’s moon plan too ambitious, Obama panel says,” Washington Post, August 14, 2009.
[xiv] Jacqui Goddard, “NASA rolls out Ares 1X, successor to the shuttle—but will Obama let it fly?” The Times of London, October 21, 2009.
[xv] See Stephen Clark, “Ares 1-X test flight cleared for launch Tuesday morning,” Spaceflight Now, October 23, 2009;Jacqui Goddard, “NASA rolls out Ares 1X, successor to the shuttle—but will Obama let it fly?” The Times of London, October 21, 2009.
[xvi] Derek Leebaert, The Fifty-Year Wound (Little, Brown, 2002), 267.
[xvii]The Fifty-Year Wound, 375.
[xviii] Kaufman, July 9, 2008.
[xix] BBC, “US praises China’s space progress,” December 4, 2009.
[xx] Testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee, September 16, 2009.
[xxi] HSPC, pp.3, 9-10, 12.