Getting Over the Space Shuttle Legacy

Representing the entire Orbiter fleet, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is above the Earth for the last time. She comes home on 21 July.

Atlantis floating over the Bahamas

The Space Shuttle is a tremendous vehicle, a real achievement of engineering. It has given us the Hubble Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory; it’s brought astronauts and nations together in a place where they can see the Earth for what it truly is; it has demonstrated and developed our capability for assembling structures and conducting experiments in space. I think the greatest achievement of the Space Shuttle Program has been the construction of the International Space Station, a huge structure where seven or so (sometimes as many as 13) astronauts can stay for half a year or more – a marvel of engineering if there ever was one. The population of the Station compares with some pioneer towns in American history.

This summer, the Shuttle Program ends. Every news outlet, blogger, commentator, and space enthusiast out there seems to agree that the word to describe the STS-135 mission is “bittersweet.” I agree that the Shuttle program has been pretty sweet…but I’m not bitter that it’s coming to an end.

In fact, I think it’s a very good thing.

The Space Shuttle Program has been active for 30 years now – and I find that simple fact quite unsettling. To put that timeframe in perspective: I grew up steeping myself in space, got a college degree in a hard science, completed a Ph.D. in spacecraft technology research, and began a career in the spacecraft industry, and I just turned 27. As long as I have been alive, there has been a Space Shuttle and a Space Shuttle Program. Or, for another view, NASA has conducted six manned space programs: Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station. Not only is the Space Shuttle Program the longest-running of them all, but it ran as long as all the other programs put together. Our nation got to the Moon from zero space-age industrial base and with a supply of engineers who had no idea how rockets worked in just over ten years. My point is this: The Shuttle Program started in the Eighties, and our nation should have been ready for the next space program in the Nineties.

How did NASA get to this point? The simple answer is that NASA was created as a weapon we could use to fight the Cold War. It was a two-pronged weapon: First, its purpose was to respond to the apparent Soviet dominance in rocket and spacecraft technology, and show that America could develop that knowledge, too. Second, it was a careful political weapon – “Look, your space program is entirely militarized. Ours is entirely civilian and peaceful, and based on capitalist contracts, and those purposes are actually superior!” Now, after it became clear that America won any Space Race that existed, NASA is a weapon without a war. It simply cannot command 4.4% of the federal budget like it did in the heyday of Apollo (it’s stuck with a measly 0.5-0.7%.). And NASA does not command the affection of the American people as well as it did in the mid-20th Century. Without those sources of support, it cannot achieve lofty goals.

I think that the Space Shuttle is, in fact, a good symbol for everything that is wrong with the American space program. In a word: Complacency. We’re too used to having a Space Shuttle – so much so, in fact, that the media continues to equate the Space Shuttle Program and the manned space program. Congress, in particular, is way too used to the Space Shuttle Program, and I think members of Congress view NASA more as a source for government sinecure jobs than for bold exploratory endeavors. The American public has become complacent about the Space Shuttle to the extent that one lasting legacy of the Shuttle Program is that the public thinks space travel is boring – NASA public affairs officers have not been able to deal with a generation that thinks iPhone apps are more exciting than human beings blasting off into orbit. And NASA itself has become complacent about the Shuttle, in many ways. NASA contractors lament the tragedy of this program ending after giving them a single, steady job for 30 years. NASA employees wonder what they will do after spending so long on this one program. And fourteen astronauts lost their lives to complacency within the Space Shuttle Program.

So, yes, the Space Shuttle is a sweet piece of hardware, and it has given us many achievements and advances. And I feel the bittersweet mood surrounding the STS-135 mission, the bittersweet mood that has been building for the last few years. But, for me, the “bitter” part doesn’t come from the end of the Space Shuttle Program.

I’m bitter because the plan America has to follow the Shuttle Program sucks.

Congress has decreed that the post-Shuttle American space program will be this: NASA shall build a really big rocket, and it shall stick the Orion capsule on top of this rocket. I am unimpressed: NASA has already figured out the really big rocket, and that capability has been in private hands for decades. Building a bigger rocket is just a question of scaling up the engineering of contemporary technology, it’s not a fundamentally new enterprise. And the Orion capsule is an Apollo-style vehicle with 125% of the personnel capacity of the 40-year-old Apollo. And Congress, while extremely interested in specifying how much stuff NASA should build and in which states NASA should build it, it has no interest whatsoever in giving the space program an objective to use that stuff for. President Obama, at least, has been willing to sketch out an objective, but NASA is going to be struggling to apply these Congressionally enumerated devices to meet exploration goals. There is a fundamental mismatch between the technologies NASA is supposed to develop and the goals it is supposed to achieve, and so our nation will end up with a Senate Space Launch System Program that exactly mirrors the over-budget, behind-schedule, and finally cancelled Ares program. So, I am bitter about the end of the Shuttle Program because it has clearly illuminated to what extent Congress views NASA as a source of pork spending, an agency to provide sinecure jobs in their districts, and not as a vehicle for our nation’s and our world’s loftiest aspirations.

I grew up with the legacy of the Apollo missions. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are heroes to me, but I am also acutely aware that they are now over eighty years old. And only ten other people walked the Moon since they have. I want to see NASA doing big things again, and I don’t think Congress has it on that path.

What do I think NASA should be doing? Simple. I think NASA should be going where no one has gone before.

Where no one has gone before. Not private companies, not other nations’ space programs, and not NASA itself.

Thus: I don’t think NASA should be in the business of building rockets. NASA paved the way in this country, but since the mid-20th Century, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital Sciences, and other companies have successfully privatized and industrialized the process of getting things into space – and that’s just in America. This process has even made its way into the small business market: SpaceX (which started small, but is rapidly growing) promises cost-cutting launches, has successfully sold its services to acquire the largest commercial launch contract ever, and it is planning to launch a heavy-lift rocket by the end of 2012. Just by the dates, before the program even starts, Congress’ SLS is in losing position and is slated for an inadequate finish – and that’s if it can keep to its intended schedule, which I don’t think likely after the Ares program. So I wonder why NASA should be doing so much as looking into the feasibility of such a vehicle. Just buy the ones that exist! The agency even has several options to pick from!

I also don’t think NASA should be in the business of building space capsules! Again, NASA paved the way – but now, Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada are all developing their own passenger-carrying capsules, and again, that’s just in America. These vehicles come under the aegis of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which seeks companies that can sell taxi service up to the Space Station and back at competitive prices, with NASA oversight for astronaut safety. So I wonder why NASA has to invest in building yet another such vehicle. Just buy the ones that are further along in development! The agency will even have several options to pick from – and SpaceX’s Dragon is practically ready!

I think NASA should skip all these solved problems and get back involved in true exploration. That is not a goal that a space capsule is appropriate for: what is the most massive component of the vehicle? The heat shield. And on the way to an asteroid or moon or planet and back, what is that heat shield doing? Taking up precious mass capacity. Reducing the spacecraft delta-v. Shrinking our horizon. I look at the Apollo program, and I think the star of the show was really the Lunar Module – that spidery thing that looked silly on the ground, but was totally at home in the environment it was built for: airless moons. That is the kind of thing NASA should be building: interplanetary spacecraft for going into deep space. These should be launched on commercial rockets and assembled modularly in space – using techniques NASA has perfected during the Space Shuttle program as it built the Space Station. They could even be constructed while docked to ISS. Then, the astronauts would taxi up in Dragons or Dream Chasers, hop into the interplanetary vehicle, and go to other worlds!

Which other worlds is an important question, and I think it has to be driven by material benefits – not just science and exploration goals, much as I love them. Because, you see, I want a sustainable human space program, not a flags-and-footprints-and-then-Congress-and-the-public-forgets-it program. I think we have to look to destinations where we can use available resources to refuel and build new space vehicles. For that reason, and the fact that an astronaut can throw things at their escape velocities, I want to see these interplanetary ships going to asteroids.

We can practice harvesting space resources and building space vehicles on the surface of the Moon, before we go further afield to deep-space asteroids. We could go to the near-Earth objects or the Asteroid Belt. We can get to Phobos and Deimos, in Mars orbit, and build shuttles to go down to another planet’s surface. We can even learn enough to mount expeditions to Jovian moons. And as we send scientists and engineers to all these places, they will need a support network – and so NASA can contract with private companies to follow them. Y’know: Starbucks on Mars.

See, I want to take everything we learned from Apollo and the Space Shuttle and build a space infrastructure. NASA-built launch vehicles and capsules are not going to help with that.

It may seem silly to be making this argument at this time – while our political landscape is defined by budget and growth concerns – but I think NASA couldn’t be more relevant. First, it’s one of the most successful government programs in terms of its accomplishments, in terms of the technological benefits, in terms of the scientific returns, and in terms of the increased economic growth in response to each federal dollar spent. Second, we as a nation are faced with a growing number of long-term problems: how to provide cost-effective medical care, how to give our populace better nutrition to combat obesity at attractive prices, how to supply our power grid with enough energy for all its customers in a responsible, sustainable way…all of these things are problems that NASA would have to solve in order to keep people living in space indefinitely. We could solve our problems on Earth in the crucible of space. If we want to really push the economy, accelerate the pace of growth and innovation, and pull off a “Manhattan Project” to deal with climate change, I think a self-sustaining human colony in deep space is the way to go.

The whole situation that NASA is in just kills me. On the one hand, without the Space Shuttle Program, it has a tremendous opportunity to re-invent itself as the kind of program that conjures up images of men and women with the Right Stuff, consistently churning out dramatic stories of inspiring successes and garnering public support. But on the other hand, Congress has set NASA against that path by giving it directives that are almost certain to fall short of their objectives, wasting time and money. NASA was once a great agency, and it could be so again…but we in the space community will have to convince a lot of Congresspeople to look outside of their Shuttle-era complacency and into the future if we want to see a space program worthy of a great nation.

One thought on “Getting Over the Space Shuttle Legacy”

  1. This is a very well-written post and I’m certainly persuaded. It would be awesome to see things being built in space. Things that haven’t been done before. I was actually shocked to read here that NASA is slated to build a heavy lift vehicle–I thought the plan was to use commercial things. Well I’m going to share this post. Hopefully we will see an impressive NASA in the nearish future

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