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.

Four hundred million dollars would be only half the request, as it was last year, and once again, this will only delay the day that we are no longer reliant on the Russians. Speaking of which, veteran astronaut Anna Fisher seems to be out of the loop as well:

Former NASA astronaut and “the first mother to fly in space” Dr. Anna Fisher took a veiled shot at President Obama and his space policies Tuesday during an interview with a local anchor at Dulles International Airport where Discovery was making its last flight before being retired at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Fisher pulled a little boy named Ethan out of the crowd who was dressed up as a NASA pilot and asked him if he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, which he answered in the affirmative.

“Any advice for Ethan, an aspiring astronaut?” she asked her mom.

“Study Russian,” Fisher quipped, to laughter.

Very funny. It’s not actually a dig at Obama (though it may have been intended to be). It also reveals ignorance about what’s going on. Obama planned to get commercial replacements up as soon as possible, and sooner than Constellation would have been operational, but Congress insisted instead on starving the Commercial Crew Program and funding rockets that NASA doesn’t need because they provide constituent jobs and campaign donations.

Unfortunately, many share Dr. Krauthammer’s belief that the agency just needs more money. Over 25,000 people have signed a White House petition to have NASA get one percent of the federal budget (which it used to perennially receive in the 1980s  and ’90s). The problem is that doubling the budget won’t help if Congress continues to force the agency to waste it, as with the SLS. It also implies that NASA has taken a massive cut, when in fact the only reason that its budget has gone from about a percent to half a percent is that the size of the federal budget doubled in recent years. NASA’s budget, while somewhat reduced, is still about what it has been traditionally in absolute terms. What the agency needs is not more money, but the ability to spend the money it has on actual space exploration and technology development instead of prestige rockets.

Anyway, not everyone was sad yesterday. Reason TV took a mocking victory lap for private space (though I’m pretty sure that it’s an exaggeration to say that Richard Branson has signed up “more stars than there are in heaven” for his suborbital excursions). Perhaps, in less than two weeks, when SpaceX plans their first launch to the International Space Station with their Dragon capsule, and people contrast the vision of the newly earth-bound Shuttle with the space-bound private rocket, the Shuttle/Apollo nostalgia will subside, and more  Americans will start to recognize our true future in human spaceflight.