Nine years ago today, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in a hurricane of plasma in the early morning sky of Texas, scattering debris and the remains of her crew over a vast swathe of the southern American heartland. It was the second loss of an orbiter (this past Saturday, January 28th, was the 26th anniversary of the Challenger disaster), reducing the fleet size once again to three remaining. It made it very clear that the program was never going to achieve its original goals of the seventies, of low cost and high reliability, and it turned out to be the last straw. A year later, in January 2004, the Bush administration announced that the Shuttle program would end in 2010, after completion of the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS), for which it was essential:
Our first goal is to complete the International Space Station by 2010. We will finish what we have started, we will meet our obligations to our 15 international partners on this project.
…To meet this goal, we will return the Space Shuttle to flight as soon as possible, consistent with safety concerns and the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. The Shuttle’s chief purpose over the next several years will be to help finish assembly of the International Space Station. In 2010, the Space Shuttle — after nearly 30 years of duty — will be retired from service.
The problem was that after the ISS was complete, without the Shuttle, the U.S. would have no capability to reach it, and there would be a “gap” in capability until some sort of replacement was developed. At the time of the announcement, the “Crew Exploration Vehicle” (CEV) was the proposed means, but it wasn’t expected to be ready until 2014, resulting in a “gap” of at least three years, and probably longer. When Mike Griffin replaced Sean O’Keefe in 2005, he rolled out a concept called Constellation, which included the CEV, renamed at that time Orion. It also included a new rocket for it, that had not been anticipated in the original Bush plan, called Ares I, despite the fact that existing rockets, such as the Atlas V or Delta IV, could have done the job. Griffin even originally claimed that his plan would reduce the gap, being ready by 2011.
Unfortunately, the design chosen was flawed, and ran into technical difficulties immediately, increasing its costs and stretching its schedule. Because there had not originally been plans for a new launcher, there wasn’t sufficient budget to support it, and other budgets, in science and technology, and the hardware actually needed to get back to the moon, were raided to feed the rocket disaster. The schedule was slipping more than a year per year, and by 2009, when the Augustine Committee was convened to evaluate the situation, it moved rightward to 2017, with only a low probability of hitting that operational date.
Meanwhile, we are totally dependent on the Russians for both transportation to and from the ISS, and for emergency lifeboat services, for which (unsurprisingly) they have been increasing the cost since the Shuttle was belatedly retired last summer, and shipping taxpayer funds overseas to them. Worse, each time we give them a new contract, we have to waive the Iran North-Korea Syria Non-Proliferation Act which prohibits trade with countries who aid those nations in the development of missiles and nukes, because Russia continues to help Iran with both.
Worse yet, while they have been flying for decades, their space systems have proven unreliable just at the point at which we have attained such total dependence. Last summer and fall, they had multiple launch failures, and then a failed Mars probe in November, which recently entered the atmosphere with a load of toxic propellants, but fortunately seems to have fallen into the ocean. And now, they’ve delayed their next ISS flight because they have leaks in the pressurized Soyuz crew module.
So, to summarize, we retired the Shuttle with no good plan to replace it, and made ourselves dependent on an unreliable foreign supplier for the support of a space station in which we have invested decades and many tens of billions of dollars. And Congress continues to fiddle while NASA burns, as I wrote in the latest issue of Reason:
There are near-term, cost-effective solutions to our space problems, but the people who guide policy in Congress aren’t interested in them, insisting instead on pouring further tens of billions into a giant rocket that probably will never fly and that internal NASA documents show is unneeded. Maintaining existing aerospace jobs—“the seen,” in Frédéric Bastiat’s famous formulation—trumps the unseen jobs and wealth that won’t be created due to the forced misallocation of resources. And none of this gets us any closer to the moon or Mars.
…The few members of Congress who pay attention to space policy (because it benefits their states and districts) reinstated [the] heavy-lift vehicle, which they called the Space Launch System (SLS, known to cynics as the Senate Launch System) and a lunar capsule, which was part of the original Constellation program. This forced NASA to waste billions of dollars a year indefinitely, even though the SLS has no funded missions and will not fly for many years. Meanwhile, in pending appropriations bills, Congress is not even providing sufficient funding for the rocket itself. Worse, it is shortchanging the only initiative—the Commercial Crew Program—with any prospect of eliminating our reliance on the Russians anytime soon, while essentially eliminating funding for the advanced technologies needed to get humans beyond Earth orbit. In mid-November, Congress appropriated about $400 million, less than half NASA’s request for the Commercial Crew Program.
Next year, it will be a full decade since Columbia was lost. And judging by the pathetic state of space policy discussion we’ve seen over the past few days, with Mitt Romney hiring Mike Griffin, the man who caused this policy disaster, to advise him, it’s likely that we’ll still be floundering and earth bound, despite the billions we’ve spent and continue to spend.