The Best NASA Can Do?

August 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin had a letter in response to critical several Times editorials,

“Terminating the shuttle program abruptly, while attractive from some points of view, carries with it grave consequences for the United States’ pre-eminence in space and would be devastating to the work force necessary to conduct any future human spaceflight program.”

There are two responses here. First, the current 2010 retirement date is completely arbitrary, and could just as easily be 2009 or 2008 or 2007. The decision should be made based on technical, financial and political realities and not an arbitrary deadline. Second, what if NASA loses another shuttle? That would certainly result in an “abrupt termination” of the program. Would that also be “devastating to the workforce”? I wonder what NASA’s contingency plans look like for the loss of another shuttle, which is a realistic possibility.

Griffin continues,

“In the same way, the decision to build the International Space Station with its present partnership arrangements was made more than a decade ago, and that decision, too, carries with it major consequences and obligations not lightly dismissed.”

The space station is “complete” when NASA says it is complete. It is a modular system. One reason why the program adopted international partners is the same as why NASA sprinkles contracts widely across congressional districts, to build a constituency for business as usual, to make it hard for politicians to take control of NASA from NASA. Business is usual is great when you are going in the right direction.

Griffin concludes that business as usual is “the best NASA can do for the country.” As an outsider to NASA, but also a long-time observer, I’d be interested in the whole set of options that NASA considered when deciding that business as usual is the best available option. One might think that Congress would be interested in this set of options and how they have been evaluated.

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