The Space Shuttle Atlantis closed its hatch at the International Space Station on Tuesday, for the last time, not just for that orbiter, but for any. It separated from the ISS, and will perform a few final tasks in orbit over the next couple days. Then, weather permitting, it will fire its orbital maneuvering engines to slow itself, and start its long, last fall back into the atmosphere, with a final stop of the wheels on the runway in Florida, where it will spend the rest of its days in a museum at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. After a little more than three decades of operation, the Space Shuttle program will be over.
Ironically, it takes place on the forty-second anniversary of the first landing on the moon (July 20th), an event that many at the time thought would kick off a great age of space exploration, to be followed by lunar bases and human missions to other planets. In fact, the Shuttle program, initiated shortly after that monumental achievement, was thought to hold the key to the rest of the solar system. Instead, it served to keep us trapped in low earth orbit for almost four decades.
With the Shuttle’s retirement this week, the nation is now dependent on the Russian Soyuz to not only get its astronauts to and from the ISS, but to continue to provide the “lifeboat” in the event of an emergency in orbit. There is now no backup to that system — if something goes wrong with it, we will have no access at all, which could be disastrous for not just those aboard the station, but for the facility itself.
This situation has led some (including some who should know better) to panic and go off on flights of fancy about keeping the system going. Even former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who created a controversy a few years ago by declaring the program a “mistake,” is now saying that it should go on.
But it’s simply impossible at this point to close the “gap” with the Space Shuttle. As former Shuttle program manager Wayne Hale warned at his blog three years ago, the supply chain of expendable parts (such as external tanks) is gone, and couldn’t be recreated for two or three years. And beyond that, it would simply be impractical to fly safely with only three orbiters left.
The end of the Shuttle program ends more than the Shuttle era. Historians in the future will note that it ended a false notion, one half a century old: that humanity would open up space through the application of command-economy government programs. The future, even the immediate future, of human spaceflight lies not with a single type of vehicle developed by and for a massive government bureaucracy, but with public/private partnerships that create a robust, competitive commercial spaceflight industry. This is the only practical way forward to close the gap between the end of the Shuttle and new domestic capability that will eliminate our reliance on the Russians.
Unfortunately, Congress, caring more about space pork than progress, continues to have other plans.
Last year, it passed an authorization bill demanding that NASA build a new heavy lift vehicle by 2016, using Shuttle components and contracts. They called it the Space Launch System, but others have called it the Senate Launch System, after the rocket scientists on the Hill who came up with it. Absurdly, they expect NASA to build this vehicle faster than it was going to deliver the Ares launcher from Constellation, with less funding, and they want to use it as a launcher for an overpriced NASA-developed capsule to ISS, despite the fact that it is ridiculously oversized for that mission. In the markup that came out of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Committee last week, they insisted on funding these for three billion dollars for next year, an increase over NASA’s request (though below the level authorized last year, and not enough to actually make the program successful, if indeed there is any amount of money that can do that). Given that the overall NASA budget is being reduced to pre-2008 levels, they got the money for this in part by reducing the funding for the commercial crew program, from the $850 million request to a little over $300 million.
In other words, they are starving off funds from the one program that can quickly close the post-Shuttle gap and pouring it into a rocket to nowhere, but one that continues to generate jobs in the states and districts of the congresspeople and senators on the space committees. Beyond that, they also cut the funding to the technology programs that offer hope of actually making travel beyond earth’s orbit practical and affordable, demonstrating once again that while they talk a good game of wanting NASA to send humans out to explore, such a goal takes a distinct backseat to keeping the campaign contributions and votes coming.
Fortunately, while they can slow down American enterprise, they can’t stop it (unless they make it illegal for private entities to go into space). SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, Bigelow Aerospace and others are going to continue to move forward and some time, probably within the next year (particularly if SpaceX docks a Dragon capsule with the ISS later this year, as currently planned), will be looking better and better. In fact, in an authorization committee hearing last week with administrator Bolden, even some of the committee members are starting to understand the implications of their disastrous policy preferences:
“We’re still talking late this decade, early ’20s before we have a human-rated [SLS] vehicle,” [Bolden] said. That, a member of the committee later noted, makes it unlikely the MPCV would be able to serve as the backup for commercial providers for accessing the ISS unless the station’s life is extended beyond 2020.
As the commercial providers continue to meet critical milestones at modest costs, and the government rocket program continues to be bogged down in mismanagement and bureaucracy, just as Constellation was, it will become clear to everyone else in Congress that we cannot afford to continue to do space business as usual as the nation becomes more and more fiscally strapped. As not just the Shuttle era, but the government-directed human spaceflight era ends, we’re finally going to get a space program that looks like America, whether the defenders of the status quo like it or not.