Science and Technology

NASA and the Shuttle: A Spent Force?

As NASA releases its proposed 2004 budget, the space agency faces a growing chorus of doubters about its approach to the final frontier and specifically, in light of the Columbia tragedy, its reliance on the aging, and now dwindling, fleet of space shuttles. It is not hyperbole to suggest the immediate future of the 45-year-old manned space travel program hangs in the balance, as the already clouded space program comes under renewed pressure to rethink its strategies, if not its ambitions altogether.

Those who did not already think so will step up the pressure, predicts Rep. Dave Weldon, co-chairman of the House Aerospace Caucus. Political enemies on Capitol Hill will argue that in these uncertain economic times, and with a war on terror that may never end and another conflict brewing, there are better uses for the US$15.5 billion (Australia $25.6 billion) NASA is slated to get next year.

With the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, the commitment to space has dwindled—NASA’s budget, in today’s dollars, is estimated as 40 percent less than it was in the early 1990s—and while President George W. Bush reaffirmed his commitment that the “cause in which (Columbia’s seven astronauts) died will continue,” it must be remembered that he installed a career bean counter, Sean O’Keefe, as NASA’s administrator with a brief to keep the budget down. O’Keefe’s famous statement that “our future decisions will be science-driven, not destination-driven” haunted those who have dreamed of man’s exploration of the heavens.

For NASA, this would be a battle easier to fight if the attacks were coming only from the predictable fronts. Instead, criticism is getting more vociferous from those who believe in space travel but are dismayed by the space agency’s management and philosophies. And the target these unlikely bed-fellows are setting their sights on is the space shuttle program, which costs $3 billion a year.

“NASA was given clear guidance, in fact direction, after the Challenger accident (in 1986),” said Alex Roland, an American space historian. “The two clearest instructions were not to rely on the shuttle: It’s too fragile and complicated technically. Second, they were to start developing a replacement. Here we are 17 years later, and NASA is still massively dependent on the shuttle and does not have a replacement launch vehicle in sight.”

In 1996, NASA began a campaign to build a less expensive, safer, and more reliable replacement for the shuttles, but last year the project was effectively scuttled. The agency and its corporate partners spent almost $1.3 billion developing the X-33, a cutting-edge reusable rocket, when the project was canceled. Other prototypes were dismissed when cost estimates burgeoned into the range of $30 billion. The agency now has 15 designs on the drawing board, two of which are to be chosen by the end of this year as a final choice, which experts say would be infinitely safer and cost 90 percent less to use than the bulky shuttles. They are due by 2006.

However, Gerard Elverum, a member of the NASA panel overseeing these choices, doubts any of NASA’s projections on a replacement for the shuttles are realistic. “You’re stuck with going ahead and making sure we can fly the shuttle until 2020,” he said. By which time, in the words of Rep. Bart Gordon, “the tread on the tires is getting very thin.” Of course, that is what they said in 1986.