The PJ Tatler

America in Space: What's Next?

With the final touchdown of space shuttle Atlantis today, that NASA program and an era of space flight come to an end. But more than a mere program has ended: America’s capability to accomplish missions in low earth orbit is, at least temporarily, gone.

We no longer have the assembled knowledge it takes to put humans into space, because with Atlantis’ successful landing, the expertise that it takes is collectively out of a job. Some will undoubtedly head off to private space companies, and others to other endeavors. But the teams and systems they formed will be gone as American astronauts will have to hitch rides just to get to the International Space Station for the foreseeable future.

If one believes NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, NASA has serious plans for the future of space exploration. But the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle Bolden touts is, at this point, vaporware. There are no serious timetables for its development or deployment. Rocket scientists have no real work to do on it. It’s a distant dream.

Meanwhile, the Russians have maintained a rudimentary but working space flight capability. The Chinese are developing theirs. The future is in space and beyond.

But as of today, America is not capable of things we could do 30 years ago, 20 years ago and 10 years ago. It was in March 2002 that I attended the launch of what turned out to be space shuttle Columbia’s last full mission, the mission to repair and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble itself was possible because we had a shuttle program capable of carrying large machines into space, and capable of allowing astronauts to spend time in space to work on them. Hubble’s design took into account the possibility of periodically visiting the telescope 350 miles up as it orbited the earth, both to repair damaged systems and replace them with more advanced ones. Hubble first flew in 1990, on a planned 10-year mission. Hubble was an American idea, named for an American visionary, that was only possible because of America’s commitment to space and discovery and our technological prowess. After 21 years she is nearing the end of her mission, having far exceeded all expectations. As of today, we could not launch and we could not maintain or upgrade Hubble. And her successor was recently stripped from future NASA plans.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves. While the shuttle program’s end was scheduled under President George W. Bush, its successor was ended under President Obama. His lack of vision for America’s role in space leaves the space nation in the lurch. Administrator Bolden, initially confused about NASA’s mission himself, seems to be settling for something less than full American leadership.

Privatization may be the next step for human space flight, but again we should not delude ourselves. Private space flight is easy to talk about but still very hard to do. Most nations still cannot gather the resources and expertise that it takes to send humans to space and return them safely to earth. Privatization is decades behind NASA’s now former capabilities, and the scale of the effort it takes to meaningfully get to space to stay long enough to accomplish anything useful remains one of the largest scale human activities. Private space flight is now doing things that NASA did in the 1960’s. It’s reasonable to question whether this really constitutes progress. The commercial potential for sending humans to space remains elusive, while the science potential is obvious and the risks remain high. Getting to space and back safely is not yet easy and it is not yet cheap enough to make it routine outside a massive effort such as NASA, which itself operates like an umbrella organization uniting many private companies. The vast majority of “NASA” workers were people like I was, a contractor whose actual employer was a private company. With the end of America’s manned space flight, many if not most of those companies will now refocus on other lines of work that hold a future for their bottom lines and for their workers. NASA will suffer a brain drain. America’s technological leadership in aerospace may suffer.

What is America’s future in space? No one knows. That’s what concerns both the first man on the moon and the last man to set foot there, and it should concern us all. We have spent ourselves close to national ruin, and out of our ability to take hold of the future. Our wings are now clipped, at least temporarily, and we have climbed down from where we once stood on the shoulders of giants.