The state of the space program, 40 years after Apollo 11

We are in the final years of the space shuttle program. Potentially, we’re quite close to the end of our space program, as we know it.

In the waning days of the Apollo program, NASA had four options. Go to mars, explore the moon further, build an infrastructure for low-earth orbit, or get out of the business altogether. The decision, although with less pomp and circumstance than Kennedy’s speech, was made to invest in low-earth orbit infrastructure and to do it at a reduced funding level from the moon program.

Thus, they created the “Space Transportation System” that was intended to contain a variety of useful pieces of infrastructure, but pretty much only delivered the space shuttle. A lot of external circumstances interfered, like heavy inflation, and the system delivered didn’t end up being especially economical.

The shuttle, in order to maintain a sufficiently large flight rate, pretty much needed to fly every single commercial and military launch. Except that no matter how hard they tried, they could never get the flight rate up to the point where it would be cheap. One of the shuttles blew up. Pieces were cut. The initial plan was to build a reusable space tug and develop an inexpensive “Interim Upper Stage” to grab satellites and take them up to their desired orbit. Eventually the tug was canceled and the “Interim Upper Stage” was renamed the “Intertial Upper Stage” when it wasn’t interim anymore.

The next logical step was the space station, which I spent most of my childhood watching the development of. Eventually, bits of the American space station and bits of the Russian station were merged to create the International Space Station.

Eventually, partway through, the Columbia broke up while reentering, and it was finally decided that the shuttle needed to go. The station was scaled down and a hard deadline for the retirement of the shuttle was created.

Now, replacements for the shuttle were discussed for years and years. Pretty much, ever since the mid eighties, there was a big fancy craft to replace the shuttle that would be even better. But, by the time rolled around, all we could do is return to old reliable technologies.

Presently, NASA is failing at creating a viable replacement for the shuttle. See, the whole point was something that just carried people, no cargo, no heavy reusability, nothing. Clearly the Russians haven’t had their spacecraft blow up, so maybe it’s better to be simple now and complex later.

Except, you see, NASA has some political considerations. Part of why it’s able to not get too much budgetary reduction is because most NASA programs are carefully spread out among many states as possible. It was built in California. It launches in Florida. The control happens in Texas. The solid rocket boosters come from Utah, the external tank from near New Orleans, and so on. There’s also a civilian army of people there to support it. Which means, that any move NASA makes to drop any of those contractors or lay off most of those people, it risks getting in trouble with congress.

Thus, the new program uses most of the infrastructure that exists already for the shuttle, the same launch pads, the same contractors, etc. It even re-uses most of the pieces, just in different shapes and sizes.

Except that, as the design has changed, it’s not getting done especially quickly. There are problems with the design. Thus, instead of getting done quickly, it’s getting later and later. NASA never got the sort of budget necessary to really accelerate the development, so between 2010 and whenever the new vehicle is done, NASA has to buy seats from the only game in town, Russia. Or they can fly a shuttle for longer, but that’s going to make the new spacecraft even later. And everything is already starting to shut down, so it’s not even certain if they can keep the shuttle flying forever anyway.

Furthermore, the replacement program spent the first few years dealing with budgetary cuts because of the war in Iraq. Now, it’s dealing with budgetary cuts because the economy is going down in flames.

NASA has produced abundant papers on the subject pointing out how their desired option is the safest and fastest and cheapest option, except they are pretty biased. All programs except for theirs are represented by strawmen.

So, in conclusion, we’re a year and some months from the end of shuttle flights. It’s awfully late to do anything to change things. And you can bet that Russia is going to take advantage of the gap where they are the only game in town… because do you think we wouldn’t would the roles be reversed?

Right now is pretty much the last chance to change the course. There’s a committee presently active to look at the various options. It’s very unlikely that they are going to stop the shuttle’s retirement, but they might be able to reverse some of the less intelligent decisions.