The end of the space shuttle program came on July 21, 2011, when Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Sadly, that day also marked the end of America’s manned spaceflight program—at least for the foreseeable future. It should have never come to this, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Before considering how best to correct America’s self-imposed exile from the heavens, it’s important to look at the causes and consequences.
Decades of benign neglect and a confluence of events conspired to steer us toward this unhappy destination.
One of those events was the Columbia disaster of 2003. Pre-Columbia, NASA had planned to deploy the shuttle until 2022. In fact, each shuttle was built for 100 missions. Discovery, the oldest of the now-retired shuttles, flew just 39. But the loss of Columbia radically altered plans to fly space shuttles into the 2020s.
The shuttle’s critics, citing the Columbia and Challenger disasters, argued that it was too expensive and too undependable. It’s worth noting, however, that the shuttle program settled into an efficient routine in the years between Challenger and Columbia. For 17 solid years, to be exact, the shuttle made the miracle of human spaceflight so seemingly effortless and ordinary that it became a footnote. Takeoffs weren’t televised, spacewalks weren’t broadcast and landings weren’t reported. Carrying humans beyond that place where space and sky collide—and back—was just part of what America did. So, policymakers of both parties and the public at large shrugged at the man-made miracle of spaceflight and largely failed to invest in, plan for or think about life after the shuttle. The result: The greatest spacefaring power on earth is stuck on earth.
Given NASA’s dwindling resources, this was inevitable. Consider the difference between Washington’s investment in the pre-Apollo NASA and the post-Columbia NASA. In the early 1960s, NASA accounted for about 1.1 percent of federal spending, as historian Derek Leebaert recalls in The Fifty Year Wound. By the time the Eagle had landed on the lunar surface, he notes that the U.S. was tasking “300,000 workers at around 20,000 companies in all 50 states” on the space program. Today, NASA outlays amount to less than 0.5 percent of federal spending.
The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is true. As Norman Augustine, chairman of President Barack Obama’s Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (HSPC), observed in 2009, “This nation could afford a strong human spaceflight program…it’s simply a question of priority.”
But since manned spaceflight was not a priority, funding declined, and a gap between the end of the shuttle and the beginning of its successor program emerged. Under the Bush administration’s plan, that gap had a defined endpoint of March 2015. The Bush administration proposed phasing out the shuttle to divert resources to the Constellation program, which would use the best of the shuttle and Apollo programs to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit.
As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan noted in an open letter in 2010, Constellation “was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses.” But President Obama canceled Constellation and flat-lined NASA spending. NASA funding was just $17.8 billion in 2012, and the White House requested less for 2013.
Putting on a brave face, NASA chief Charles Bolden—a former astronaut—says Washington’s spending plan for NASA “requires us to live within our means,” which is what Americans expect of their government. It’s just that the administration’s willingness to starve NASA stands in such stark contrast with its eagerness to pour unprecedented sums into virtually every other government program. This isn’t a partisan issue. As Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson observes, “The important role NASA plays in pushing innovation…argues for a bigger commitment to the agency than either the administration or Congress is currently making.”
How much bigger? One HSPC member told The Washington Post that NASA needs some $50 billion to sustain a manned program beyond low-earth orbit.
Of course, given the nation’s badly strained fiscal condition, there’s no political will for diverting that much cash to NASA. That may change as Americans watch the Russians and Chinese surge ahead in spaceflight.
Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) after the Columbia disaster. NASA is paying Russia $753 million to deliver Americans to and from ISS through 2015. Bridging the gap by relying on Russia was always an imperfect workaround. Michael Griffin, NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, called it “unseemly in the extreme”—and understandably so. But it’s more than unseemly and imperfect. “It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that,” Griffin warned in February 2008.
Of course, collaborating with Russia as a short-term stopgap is far different than counting on Putin and his puppets indefinitely. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer, blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites. (Russia recently raised fares from $55.8 million per seat to $62.7 million.) Just as worrisome is Russia’s space competence. In 2011, Russia lost an unmanned spacecraft for a few days and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed failure of a Russian satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies called “a basic fuel miscalculation.”
Still, as National Defense magazine reports, Russia conducted 31 launches last year. For the first time in history, China (with 19 launches) fired more rockets into space than the United States (18). This year, China plans 21 launches. Indeed, “China has accorded space a high priority for investment,” as the Pentagon reports:
• In 2007, China deployed its first lunar orbiter. That same year, Beijing tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against one of its own satellites, demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-earth orbit.
• The Pentagon’s 2011 review of Chinese military power reports that Beijing “is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries.” The 2012 review adds, “Over the past two years, China has…conducted increasingly complex close-proximity operations between satellites.”
• Beijing has begun deploying elements of a manned space station, with the goal of conducting a lunar landing by 2020. How ironic: Just as China begins to leap toward the moon, earth’s first emissary to the moon surrenders the high ground.
If, as Augustine noted, there are “leadership benefits of being among the world’s space-faring nations,” there are consequences to not being a space-faring nation. “To be without carriage to low-earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future,” as the Apollo trio puts it, “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
We’ve been here before. Almost six years elapsed between the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 and America’s next manned space mission, the maiden voyage of Columbia. That period ominously coincided with what is generally considered the nadir of America’s post-World War II power.
We got ourselves into this fix, and we can get ourselves out. But it’s going to take time, talent and treasure. Regrettably, we don’t have a surplus of any of these right now.
Every day we defer hard decisions and needed investments is a day China and Russia close the gap further—or worse, expand their lead. Building new spaceships is not like flipping a light switch. Yet in can be done sooner rather than later, but only if America summons the will to begin. The alternative, as President John Kennedy warned in 1962, is “to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space.”
As to talent, the Apollo generation’s pool of physicists, designers and engineers is rapidly draining away. “Fifty years ago,” Griffin observed in 2008, “almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded in the United States.” Equally concerning, some 38 percent of technology PhDs are conferred on foreign-born students, “most of whom return to their home countries,” according to Griffin. This was not the case at the beginning of the Space Age. William Pickering came to America from New Zealand to study at Cal Tech; he then led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during its most critical and consequential decades. Washington plucked an army of rocket scientists from Germany after World War II. Chief among them, of course, was Wernher Von Braun, father of the Jupiter and Saturn V rockets.
In short, we have regressed from in-sourcing space operations to outsourcing them. This has to be reversed, which brings us to treasure. America’s next chapter in space depends on a healthy, innovative economy; a mix of public-private space partnerships; free-market incentives that persuade foreign-born, U.S.-schooled scientists to apply their talents here; and, yes, increased investment. To be sure, we must guard against a return to what historian Paul Johnson once called “the show-biz era of space travel,” with “its contempt for finance, its assumption that resources were limitless.” But there is a happy medium between yesterday’s space-spending frenzy and today’s under-funded minimalism.
On the matter of public-private partnerships, there’s nothing in the Constitution that says government agencies are the only means of delivering Americans into space. Private firms like NASA’s new partner SpaceX offer promise. Just last month, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral and docked a capsule with ISS. But it pays to recall that the rocket was unmanned and is unable to lift what a shuttle could carry. The Falcon 9 is expected to carry 22,000 pounds. By contrast, the shuttle could deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit.
There is one other way to end America’s post-shuttle problem: Shift all space operations, including manned spaceflight, to the U.S. military. Such a transition may already be underway. Whether it’s by design or by accident is unknown. What we do know is that national-security space spending is estimated to be more than double the shrinking NASA budget; the military space workforce grew from 15,791 in 2009 to 16,739 in 2011, while the civilian space sector shed 8,000 jobs in 2010 alone; and the Air Force is testing a super-secret space plane.
In other words, the end of the shuttle doesn’t mean the end of America’s presence in space. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine that the United States will be able to hold or enhance its position relying on an unproven space plane, under-strength commercial rockets, an undependable Russia and unmanned assets