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Dramatic Changes Ahead for NASA

The end of January has some deadly anniversaries for NASA. January 27 was the 43rd anniversary of the death of three astronauts on the launch pad in the Apollo I fire. January 28 was the 24th anniversary of the Challenger loss, which traumatized a generation of schoolchildren now in their thirties and early forties. They sat in their schoolrooms and watched it get torn apart live on television with Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, aboard. And Monday, February 1, will be the anniversary of the Columbia’s tragic breakup over the skies of Texas, also killing all aboard.

While the Challenger event caused people to question continuing the shuttle program in the eighties, the Columbia loss was the last straw, which ultimately determined that the program would have to come to a close. That decision was made a little less than a year afterward, on January 14, 2004, when President Bush announced a new space policy called the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).

Part of that plan was that the shuttle would be retired in 2010 after completion of the International Space Station (ISS), and eventually replaced to some degree by a new “crew exploration vehicle,” though there would be a gap of two or three years between the last shuttle flight and the operations of the new system.

Unfortunately, the crew exploration vehicle (now called Orion) and the launcher that NASA decided to develop to deliver it to orbit, the Ares I, are far behind schedule and vastly over budget. There are a lot of technical issues remaining, which means that the “gap” between the end of shuttle operations and the initial operations of its ostensible “replacement” has grown to at least seven years, according to the Augustine panel report released last fall.

And now that 2010 has arrived, some defenders of the shuttle, such as Florida Congressman Bill Posey, are fighting a rear-guard action to extend it (primarily over concern about the lost jobs), with the only existing alternative to rely on the Russians for human access to the ISS for however many years it takes until either NASA or private industry comes up with a home-grown solution.

Unfortunately for them, such an extension is unrealistic. The manufacturing lines for expendable parts (such as the external tank) have been shut down for some time now, and restarting them would cost years and billions. And there are only three vehicles left, a bare minimum to sustain operations, with a cost (again) of years and billions to build any more. So if the program is extended, it would only have a few flights left, and slowing the flight rate to once per year, simply to maintain the capability, might increase the risk as the workers forget jobs that are done so seldom. There is an optimal flight rate for cost and safety, and that would be far below it.

In any event, the administration has tipped its hand as to its plans for the future of NASA human space flight. Administrator Charles Bolden of NASA is scheduled to discuss them with the space community, at least in broad outline, on Monday (just coincidentally the seventh anniversary of the Columbia disaster). Some speculated that the president would make an announcement in the State of the Union address, but that didn't happen. The Orlando Sentinel reported on Tuesday that Constellation, including the Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles, will be canceled, along with any specific plans to return to the moon.

Such an apparent retrenchment would not be something that the administration would want to highlight so publicly, even if it’s sound policy. And it’s hardly a surprise, given the budget difficulties pointed out by the Augustine panel last year. Those budget difficulties will only become worse, particularly with the administration’s announcement in the past few days of a planned freeze on non-defense discretionary spending. NASA is less than one percent of the total federal budget, but it’s a much larger percentage of that part of it over which the administration actually has some control.