Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Thoughts at the End of an Era

The New York Times reports that the last solid-fuel boosters for the space shuttle have arrived at Kennedy Space Center. We're nearing the end of the line.

The history of the space shuttle has been complicated, as we've mentioned before. In spite of its successes, it never lived up to its hype, and it locked us into low-earth orbit missions for almost 30 years. So there should be a sense of renewal and excitement at the prospect of moving on to bigger and better things (namely, sending astronauts into deep space, beyond the Moon).

But that sense is missing as we retire the shuttle and wait for a new vehicle that hasn't even been built yet. President Bush's plan for the future of NASA left a five year gap between the retirement of the space shuttle and launch of the first manned Ares I. And now President Obama's plan, regardless of its merits, has added to the uncertainty of our future in manned spaceflight. Granted, the timeline of the development gap has been dictated to some degree by the shuttle fleet's advanced age -- no one wants to see another space shuttle disaster, especially if the cause were to be a result of the shuttle's wear and tear. But if the Apollo program tells us anything, we know that that gap probably could have been shortened considerably if the funding had been there.

When I talk to my non-space enthusiast friends, few of them realize that we are now facing a gap of several years between the retirement of the shuttle and the next manned American launch vehicle. And the thought of hitching a ride with the Russians in the meantime conjures images of shoddily built spacecraft and risky operations... a perception that is, presumably, left over from the final rickety days of the MIR space station.

But what should worry us about riding with the Russians is not the quality of their spacecraft, but rather a dependence on a country with which we have an uneasy relationship at best. Our space programs have coordinated fairly well since the 1990s, but there's always the possibility that wider political tensions will scuttle the partnership. We will depend on them for transport to the largely US-funded International Space Station, so they've sort of got us over a barrel.

Unfortunately this predicament was, unimaginably, not anticipated. Not until the Columbia disaster (23 years after STS-1) did we seriously consider the fact that the shuttle would have to be retired eventually, and that a new program was needed. And NASA funding has been such that two manned programs cannot exist simultaneously.

So let's hope that this will be a lesson for the future. The general public will always be insufficiently educated about the space program, so the government just cannot rely on popular enthusiasm alone. It's a tall order given the funds involved, but Congress has to be courageous in its appropriations if we're to maintain our leadership in space, and not leave ourselves vulnerable to the shifting winds of global politics. Development of any program takes years, which means short-sighted plans simply won't do. And as we've seen recently with the opposition to President Obama's plan, the public will only take notice when it's too late.

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