Discovery, We Hardly Knew Ye

To listen to the news on Tuesday, you would have thought that the Space Shuttle program was just now shutting down, when in fact the last flight of the program was last summer. What occasioned all the sudden nostalgia? Not to be cynical, but I imagine that if the orbiter being delivered to its final resting place had been going to Los Angeles (where one of them is ultimately going to be), the Beltway crowd wouldn’t have paid much attention. But when a giant aircraft with a Shuttle on its back is going to fly over the District of Columbia, people tend to notice, and remember what once was.

This is often the case, and ironically, interest in the program seems to have grown now that it is over. It occasioned not only news stories, but the dedication of one of the panel discussions on Fox News. In it, Charles Krauthammer displays his continuing longing for the space program of his youth, and fails to recognize the reality of our private-space future:

We were so far ahead in space — the Shuttle itself is probably not the best machine, it was OK for its time, but it was inefficient and dangerous. The problem is not the cancellation of the Shuttle, it’s the fact that we canceled the follow on. We now have to beg the Russians as a way to get into space, we who left the Russians in the dust ten years ago in the race to the moon. Obama speaks of America not doing great things, well the manned space program was a great accomplishment, and it’s now in decline and disintegrating. He spends his money on the windmills and algae, but he drains it out of the NASA and what’s happening is this high-tech stuff he promotes as the future of the nation, all these scientists are leaving. They are leaving space, ending up other places. It will take decades to reconstitute it. It’s a very sad ending, thrilling as it was to see it in the air today.

A. B. Stoddard agreed, saying there was “no path to Mars.” In response to Steve Hayes’ comment that the budgets were tight, things were shifting to the private sector, and the future of manned spaceflight was not with the government, Krauthammer says that there will be people in space, but for the next decade they will be Russian and Chinese, with the latter walking on the moon in the footprints that we laid, indicating just how out of touch he is with what’s actually going on, both here and abroad.

Ignoring the fact that we left the Soviets in the dust forty-three years ago, not ten, Dr. Krauthammer seems to be of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with NASA that a new direction and adequate budget won’t fix. He doesn’t recognize that the “follow on” that was canceled was canceled for good reason -- it was dramatically over budget, slipping more than a year per year behind schedule, and even if it did everything as planned, it would have flown rarely at a cost of billions per mission to send a few astronauts back to the moon. He also doesn’t seem to be aware that there are four contractors developing new manned launch systems, partially funded with private money, one or more of which will fly within three years or so. Those new manned systems will require a modest amount of funding, compared to the fiscal disaster that was Constellation, and that is the Space Launch System (SLS). Unfortunately, it’s looking as though, just as it was last year, the Commercial Crew Program will be underfunded to allow the pork on the SLS to continue to flow:

Senate Appropriations has marked up its proposed NASA budget. For the commercial crew program they provide “$525 million, an increase of $119 million above fiscal year 2012″, but that is abut $300 million less than the Administration’s request. If the House again appropriates $300M as they did last year, the compromise could come to $400M again. Of course, this is all theoretical since there probably won’t be a Federal budget in place for 2013 until well into 2013.