Time to Retool NASA

July 28th, 2005

Posted by: admin

The left-of-center LA Times has a strongly-worded editorial this morning calling for the permanent end to shuttle flights as well as the International Space Station, the right-of-center Washington Times has a piece suggesting that any manned mission to the moon or Mars is a waste of time and money, and of course everyone is talking about the grounding of the shuttle fleet.

Losing a two to three foot long piece of foam is a very serious matter, and drives home the point Roger made yesterday that space travel is currently a very risky business. Hopefully it also gets NASA, the public, and Congress to start talking more about what we want out of a national space program.

The space station and shuttle are the biggest obstacles to making fundamental changes at NASA. Currently the shuttle is the only system capable of launching and constructing Station, which is currently about half complete. Permanently grounding the shuttle would all but end the ISS mission, making ISS the 2nd space station the U.S. has left out in the cold. Also recall that the U.S. is but one member of the international partnership, a partnership that by and large still thinks useful science and work can eventually be accomplished in low-Earth orbit. Furthermore, this year’s Congressional debates have reflected large support for keeping the shuttle flying. S. 1281, the Senate NASA bill, directs NASA to fly the shuttle as long as is needed to avoid any “gap” between the shuttle and a replacement. A mandatory 2010 retirement in the Republican House bill, H.R. 3070, was removed in the bi-partisan version that passed last Friday. So, while there’s no doubt that ISS acts as a 50 billion dollar anchor on the U.S. space program, abandoning it will not be easy.

Tackling this will involve thinking about a number of fundamental issues. What does society want in a manned space program, what are our basic goals and what are our priorites? In the end, three key questions need to be discussed. Should the ISS mission continue? Can ISS continue without the shuttle? And can the U.S. step off the path it’s been on for the last 35 years?

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