Doubt replaces the Shuttle
On April 14, 1981, after landing the first Space Shuttle, Astronaut John Young spoke to the cheering crowd at Edwards AFB. In his speech he said “I saw a newspaper headline that expressed it way better than I could. It showed a Space Shuttle orbiter and it said The Dream Is Alive Again. Let’s keep it that way.” Just over 30 years later the Space Shuttle program and that dream ended as the orbiter Atlantis landed at the Kennedy Space Center in what the media repeatedly called a “bitter-sweet moment.” My question is- where’s the sweet?
The date of the Atlantis’ landing was July 21, 2011, exactly one half of a century after Gus Grissom flew a Mercury Redstone from Cape Canaveral on a sub-orbital flight. He flew that sub-orbital mission because in 1961 the United States did not yet have the capability to actually orbit a manned spacecraft. Fifty years later to-the-day, with the wheels of the Atlantis coming to a stop, the United States once again did not have the capability to orbit a manned spacecraft. There is no man-rated launch vehicle in production, no man-rated spacecraft in ready to fly anytime soon and NASA has not produced a complete plan for any such hardware in the future. Instead all that we have are vaporous circle speeches about undefined “path breaking” and “game changing” technologies and assurances from NASA’s politically appointed administrators that the future is bright and this is far from the end for NASA’s human spaceflight program. We’re told that we will visit an asteroid… sometime, about a decade and a half from now and that we’re going to Mars in a little more than quarter of a century from now. Oh boy… that’s real inspirational.
What is really represented by the end of the Space Shuttle program is not a pinnacle of technical success, but rather a failure of political leadership. It is a demonstration that our so-called “leaders” in the 21st Century have taken their lessons not from John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, but from Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Rather than leading us to a challenging bright future of national excellence, they are concerned only with leading us toward the ballot box and their own re-election.
NASA’s politically appointed “leadership” has joined in taking this sandwich made of excrement and are calling it peanut butter. The man who likely will go down in history as being the worst NASA administrator in history, Charlie Bolden, repeatedly appears in front of Congress and in the media and assures that “This is not the end of Americans flying in space.” and “We still have a manned space program.” Indeed- Americans will be flying to the International Space Station, by way of rented seats on Russian rockets and there is no date ever mentioned as to when that rental space program will end.
It is time to tell the truth- such spaceflight is NOT an American manned space program. To settle that point, simply ask yourself this question: Is space tourist Dennis Tito a country with a manned space program? He may have enough money to qualify as a small country- but otherwise, the answer is “No.” Is space tourist (although she prefers the term “participant”) Anousheh Ansari a country with her own human spaceflight program? No? Well, both of these people went to the ISS on a rented seat aboard a Russian Soyuz. That’s exactly what the United States will now be forced to do- except for the fact that the space tourists paid about $40 million less for their seat than the United States will have to pay for each of its. If we cannot call Mr. Tito and Ms. Ansari a nation with a human spaceflight program, than we cannot call the United States a nation with a human spaceflight program.
Additionally, Administrator Bolden has continually overseen and perhaps directed the foot-dragging by NASA that is obstructing the development of the Shuttle replacement vehicle- the Space Launch System, or SLS. Directed by law to immediately begin and expedite the SLS back in 2010, NASA’s Administrators delayed progress for nearly a full year. That forced to Congress to go as far as to threaten to open an investigation into the administrator’s foot-dragging. Charlie Bolden was finally subpoenaed by the Congress, and still continued to delay. No other NASA administrator has been openly threatened by Congress with such an investigation nor has one ever been subpoenaed by the Congress. Of course Charlie probably does not care much about such issues- he was often away on overseas junkets as his agency fell into ruin.
Charlie Bolden, it should be noted, serves “At the pleasure of the President.” And Bolden himself recently testified in front of Congress that his president is one of the most engaged and interested presidents in history when it comes to spaceflight. Then he cited President Obama’s visit to KSC for the STS-134 launch when he toured the space center with his family. Indeed, the only President who spent a similar amount of time appearing in front of space hardware was Richard Nixon- who, by the way, at the same time was working hard behind the scenes to cancel the ENTIRE manned space program. History alone will tell us what this president is doing behind the scenes while at the same time posing in front of space hardware. Currently, as evidenced by his last three budget proposals, President Obama appears to be working very hard to gut NASA’s human spaceflight program. Each proposal sought to funnel most of the human spaceflight dollars to “commercial” operators and his 2011 proposal defunded the vehicles that were to replace the shuttle which also canceled our return to the moon.
Yet we are told that there is always “commercial” spaceflight to bail us out… right? Well, that is where Obama proposes that we spend our funds. Although I am all for SpaceX, and the other “commercial” space start-ups, it is about time we knock down to political facade of “commercial” that is being used to prop-up a few companies that are Obama approved to do spaceflight. The best filter here is to look through is Project Gemini. The Titan II booster was built by Martin, a “commercial” company. The Gemini spacecraft was built by McDonnell Aircraft Corp., a “commercial” company. Many other components were made by other private “commercial” contractors and the entire program was run by NASA. Government funds along with investments by those companies made Gemini happen. This is the same basic formula that is being applied to the Obama approved “commercial” operators such as SpaceX and Orbital. Yet, the SLS is not considered as “commercial” by Obama even though the Orion spacecraft is being made by Lockheed-Martin, the booster core tank is being made by Boeing and the SRBs are made by ATK- all being private “commercial” companies. The difference? These companies are apparently not Obama approved for taking us into the future of spaceflight. So the production of the SLS is being delayed and stalled by, not only NASA’s politically appointed upper administrators, but by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which operates exclusively at the direction of the office of the President.
There is no real need to end the Shuttle program at all. In fact, the “retirement” and replacement of the Shuttle architecture was a recommendation made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in the wake of the STS-107 accident. For the Bush administration it became a handy, politically acceptable knee-jerk reaction to the accident. Additionally, it was supported in the public eye by some commonly held myths about the Shuttle. First, the Shuttle is too dangerous to continue to fly because in the event of a catastrophic failure on takeoff- because it has no escape system. Indeed- that is correct, it has no escape system to can be used in such a catastrophic failure… neither does ANY modern jet airliner or corporate jet- yet we do not see them as too dangerous to fly. Next- the Shuttle system as a whole is simply dangerous. Yes- IT’S A ROCKET that flies into space! Of course it’s dangerous overall. Additionally, the SRBs are dangerous to operate. The SRBs have made 270 flight cycles with only one failure, which was caused when management elected to fly the unit outside of its operational flight envelope. Also, we are told that the Shuttle has an unacceptable loss rate. In fact, when the Shuttle was originally proposed the Loss Of Crew (LOC) rate was calculated at 2%. With the end of the 135th flight, there have been two LOCs- that is a rate under the original prediction of 2%. Finally, Charlie Bolden himself said, in front of Congress, that every time NASA launched a Shuttle it was playing Russian roulette. This was a slap in the face to all of the hundreds of people who worked meticulously to ensure that every time the Shuttle played that game that Charlie called Russian roulette- there were no bullets in the gun. Now, however, the Shuttles will be totally safe forever… as museum pieces.
So here we are, left with no human rated flying space hardware, with the standing army of spaceflight professionals devastated by lay-offs as the shuttle replacement architecture is being slow-walked by political brats and we have no choice other than paying whatever price the Russians wish to charge us in order to get to the space station that we paid ~$80 billion to build. Meanwhile our best hope depends on so-called “commercial” operators who have yet to fly a single human-rated vehicle. Plus our so-called “leaders” seem to believe that simply talking about doing fantastic things is just as good as actually accomplishing them. As of the wheels-stop of the Atlantis and the end of the STS-135 mission, we are left with nothing more to do other than to look back at exciting videos of what we once accomplished in space and say “The dream WAS alive.”