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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.

However, because the planned freeze is aggregate (that is, the total amount will be frozen, but individual accounts could still go up or down as long as the total doesn’t change), rumors are that NASA will still get a modest increase.

So, if we’ve lost the moon again, and Constellation, what is the new plan?

Apparently, the International Space Station (ISS), previously planned to be retired in 2016, will be extended until at least 2020, and likely beyond. As for replacing the shuttle in its role of supporting ISS operations and crew changeout, those tasks will be given to the burgeoning private industry players, such as Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), whose Falcon 9 rocket is expected to fly early this year, perhaps with its new Dragon crew module.

If the shuttle is extended at all, it will be only into 2011 to allow final completion of the ISS. As for ventures beyond low earth orbit, Constellation will be replaced with a technology development program for things such as propellant depots, landers, and other capabilities needed for such future missions. These are technologies that had been defunded by the previous administrator to provide funds for the troubled Constellation program, and will now be restored to their proper priority, with billions available for them once the shuttle is retired.

The agency will also be redirected, to no one’s surprise, to more monitoring of the earth and its environment, something badly needed, given what a mess the current “science” of climate change has turned out to be, though whether it’s a job for NASA (as opposed to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency) is a debate that the nation should have.

And of course, the White House proposes, and Congress disposes, and there is still a lot of support in various quarters -- Texas, Alabama, Florida -- for maintaining the status quo, with all of the associated jobs for civil servants and contractors. Congress has already stated that its approval will be required for any changes to Constellation funding, so there will likely be some horse-trading to allow the new plans to go forward.

For instance, in exchange for allowing the Ares program to die, it’s likely that Alabama Senator Richard Shelby will demand some other new heavy-lift vehicle development. The Augustine panel declared such a system necessary for exploration ultimately. And even if it’s not (as many, including this correspondent, believe), it seems to be politically necessary to maintain support for NASA funding.

So on these grim anniversaries, it seems to be the end of a decades-long era for NASA, going back to the early sixties. The agency will no longer develop or operate the vehicles it needs to get its astronauts into space, but will instead refocus on the means of getting them beyond low-earth orbit, as it should have after the announcement of the VSE. This is good news for those of us interested in human expansion of space, because it was never going to be affordable on NASA’s previous trajectory, which promised continued missions of billions of dollars each for a few astronauts.

Instead, the new market provided by ISS will supplement the private markets, such as Bigelow Aerospace for human transport to orbit, finally reducing its cost and making it affordable not just for government agencies, but perhaps for at least some of the rest of us. As I’ve long said, NASA’s job is not to send a man to Mars, but to make it possible for the National Geographic Society to do so. The new direction for the space agency is a long-needed step in that direction.