Policy Review | August/September 2009
By Alan W. Dowd

What if, in the midst of the epic contest to explore and colonize the New World, Britain — the greatest seafaring power of its day — had to mothball its naval fleet and rely on other countries to transport British men and material across the oceans?

This much we know: With British subjects, ideas, and goods tethered to a little island off the coast of Europe, Britain and the world would be very different today.

Something not too dissimilar is about to happen in the heavens, as the United States prepares to retire its fleet of space shuttles. For almost 30 years, the venerable, if imperfect, space plane has been America’s workhorse in space, carrying astronauts, scientific experiments, and satellites into orbit, painstakingly building the International Space Station, and just as important, reviving America’s self-confidence and reinforcing America’s image as a pioneering nation. But by 2010, with the fleet grounded due to budget, age, and safety concerns, America will have no way of delivering its own astronauts into space. The hiatus could last almost five years.

America and the world — and space — could be very different by then.

NASA is retiring the remaining shuttles — Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis — in order to make way for the Constellation program, which includes the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and Ares I and V rockets. The Constellation program will incorporate “the best aspects of the Apollo and Shuttle systems,” according to NASA. As the Government Accountability Office explains, “NASA is counting on the retirement of the Shuttle to free up resources to pursue a new generation of space flight vehicles.”

The problem is this: Those next-generation vehicles won’t be ready until 2015. That leaves a significant gap between the last shuttle flight and first CEV flight — a gap that could strain or even undermine America’s international standing, national security, and independence.

How will we bridge that gap? The alternatives are grim, so grim that the best option appears to be purchasing “crew and cargo transport services from Russia and our international partners,” in the worrisome words of one NASA official. As Michael Griffin, NASA administrator under President George W. Bush, observed in 2008, “It is dangerous for the United States to find itself dependent upon any external entity for a strategic capability, and space transportation is just that.”

His words were prescient, as became clear during Russia’s blitzkrieg battering of — and slow-motion, scorched-earth withdrawal from — Georgia. Griffin told the International Herald Tribune that he ordered NASA to explore contingency plans for using the shuttle beyond 2010 “about five minutes after the Russians invaded Georgia.” Griffin wasn’t alone. During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama voiced support for extending shuttle flights, calling on NASA to “take no further action that would make it more difficult or expensive to fly the Shuttle beyond 2010.”

Obama got a little wiggle room late last year, when Congress passed a measure that pays for an extra shuttle flight and for costs associated with delaying the planned retirement of the fleet. The delay could be expensive. According to estimates cited by the Orlando Sentinel, flying the shuttle beyond 2010 could cost some $4 billion per year. And because building new spaceships and retiring old ones is not like flipping a light switch, it is going to be very difficult to close the gap completely.

The post-shuttle gap “is essentially unfixable now,” according to Griffin. This is due to the transfer of personnel and resources to the post-shuttle program, the end of contracts, and the conversion of systems and facilities. It’s no wonder that the GAO has identified the shuttle’s status as one of its thirteen “urgent issues” for the new administration. Obama’s first budget calls for following through on plans to retire the space shuttle fleet in 2010, allowing for the possible addition of just one extra shuttle mission. However, Senator Bill Nelson wants to extend the shuttle program into 2011.

Costly causes, costly consequences

An Obama space-policy document cites “underfunding by the Bush administration” for the shuttle-CEV gap. In fact, the crisis facing America’s manned space program has many causes.

One of those causes is the Columbia disaster of 2003. Pre-Columbia, NASA had planned to deploy the space shuttle until 2022. The loss of Columbia radically altered those plans. The tragedy was triggered when tiles punctured the orbiter’s leading-edge protective skin during takeoff. Critics argue that these and other safety issues will continue to dog the shuttle as long as NASA deploys the aging orbiter, and they note that many of the safety issues can be alleviated by new technologies.

Indeed, the space shuttle’s critics have long argued that it is too expensive and too undependable. A prime example is science writer Jeffrey Kluger’s observation in Time magazine that shuttles “cost $400 million every time they fly, take months to prep for a mission and have a devastatingly poor safety record, as two lost ships and 14 lost lives attest.” It’s worth noting, however, that the shuttle program settled into an efficient routine in the years between the Challenger and Columbia disasters. For 17 solid years, to be exact, the shuttle made the miracle of spaceflight so seemingly effortless and ordinary that it became a footnote. Takeoffs weren’t televised, spacewalks weren’t broadcast, and landings weren’t reported. Carrying humans beyond that place where space and sky collide — and back — was just part of what America did.

In truth, the space shuttle was, and is, anything but ordinary. It lifts off like a rocket, races around the earth like a satellite, picks up stranded cosmonauts and astronauts, delivers satellites, services space stations and telescopes, and then glides home on a fountain of fire, before gently touching down like any passenger airplane. And somehow it is only the failures — two over 28 years and more than 125 missions — that grab our attention.

Given the technological feats America has attempted and achieved in space — putting 12 men on the moon and bringing them home, conducting dozens of shuttle missions, building a permanent space station, sending unmanned spacecraft beyond this solar system — the memorial hall of American astronauts still seems remarkably and mercifully small. In short, transporting people into space (the hard part) and back (the harder part) is not going to be risk-free or cheap in the lifetime of anyone who remembers the first Columbia mission, and it will never be both risk-free and cheap.

Speaking of expense, another factor contributing to America’s looming self-imposed exile from space is money and unforeseen demands upon that money. Consider the overflowing smorgasbord of middle-class entitlements. Homeland security has devoured between about $30 billion and $60 billion annually since September 11, 2001. The Congressional Research Service estimates that by the end of FY2009, costs related to military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the continental U.S. will exceed $870 billion — and will eclipse $1.7 trillion for the period spanning FY2001–FY2017. Then there was the mortgage meltdown, the bank bailout, the automaker bridge loans, and the TARP and stimulus monstrosities, which gobbled up hundreds of billions more.

NASA actually received an infusion of cash from the stimulus package and a bump from Obama’s 2010 budget, but much of the money is earmarked for climate-monitoring satellites. As the Space Foundation’s Elliot Pulham observed, it is not nearly enough for the U.S. to “hold on to its eroding leadership position in space.”

Another factor in this shuttle-replacement debacle is a lack of foresight and a lack of will. As Griffin bluntly put it, “I am concerned that America’s potential as a great nation is withering away due to benign neglect, apathy, complacency, and a lack of leadership.” We’ve been here before. Almost six years elapsed between the Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975 and America’s next manned space mission, the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Columbia. That period ominously coincided with what is generally considered the nadir of America’s post-World War II power, the malaise years that historian Paul Johnson has aptly called “the collectivist Seventies.”

The blame for our current position rests with Congress and the White House, with Democrats and Republicans, with the public and policymakers — for shrugging at the manmade miracle of space flight, for not appreciating the nation’s reliance on space for everyday life, for not investing treasure and talent into space, for not facing reality. For instance, when Challenger exploded after takeoff, U.S. policymakers should have recognized that the shuttle was neither immortal nor problem-free.

Nor is it cost-free. Yet at $17.8 billion for FY2009, Washington’s NASA outlays amount to just 0.12 percent of GDP, or about 0.5 percent of federal spending. To be sure, the Pentagon spends billions more on space-related assets, but one can’t help but notice the dramatic difference between Washington’s investment in the pre-Apollo NASA and the post-Columbia NASA — and what that investment yielded. As Derek Leebaert recalls in The Fifty Year Wound, early in his term President John Kennedy pegged space spending at $1.2 billion “in what that era judged a ‘mammoth’ $106.8 billion federal budget” (Derek Leebaert, The Fifty-Year Wound, 267). That was 0.2 percent of GDP and 1.1 percent of federal spending. By the time the Eagle had landed on the lunar surface, the U.S. was tasking “300,000 workers at around 20,000 companies in all 50 states” on the space program(Leebaert, 375).

America’s short attention span soon moved on to something else, though. Likewise, interest in space-related education plummeted. With the Apollo generation retiring, the talent pool of American physicists, designers, and engineers is rapidly draining away. “Fifty years ago,” according to Griffin, “almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded in the United States than in 2004.” He notes that American students are falling behind their peers in other industrialized nations in math and science. Worse, “in 2000, 38 percent of technology PhDs were conferred upon foreign-born graduate students, most of whom return to their home countries” (Michael Griffin, Remarks to CalvinCollege (January 17, 2008), available at www.nasa.gov/pdf/208781main_Calvin_College_080117.pdf.). This was not the case at the beginning of the Space Age. William Pickering came to America from New Zealand to study at Cal Tech; he then led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory during its most critical and consequential decades. Washington plucked an army of rocket scientists from Germany after World War II. Chief among them, of course, was Wernher Von Braun, father of the Jupiter rocket that answered Sputnik and, later, the Saturn V that carried American astronauts to the moon.

In short, we have regressed from in-sourcing space operations to outsourcing them.

The next war

In 1996, the Clinton administration concluded that “assuring reliable and affordable access to space through U.S. space transportation capabilities is fundamental to achieving national space policy goals.” It directed the Pentagon to “develop, operate and maintain space-control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, to deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”

A decade later, the Bush administration declared that America’s “national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities, and this dependence will grow.” This statement had already been underscored by the early phases of the War on Terror, which Bush called “the first war of the 21st century.” The nation’s initial counterstrikes against al Qaeda were thrown by satellite-guided cruise missiles. Since then, U.S. pilots have been using Joint-Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) to pound terrorists and their sponsors. The JDAM continually receives data from GPS satellites to lock on and destroy targets in any weather and at any time of day.

As recently as May of 2008, GPS-guided Tomahawk missiles, launched by Navy vessels, hit al Qaeda bases in Somalia. Raytheon, the smart missile’s manufacturer, proudly notes that more than 1,900 Tomahawks have been fired in combat, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, the Predator drone, which transmits images and information via satellite to faraway command centers, has enabled U.S. forces to attack targets within minutes rather than days. Retrofitted with Hellfire missiles, the Predator has struck targets in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Its next-generation cousin, the Reaper, has weaponry grafted into its systems. Instead of just two Hellfires, the Reaper has 14 and flies higher and faster than the Predator. Thanks to satellite links, the Reaper can be piloted by a technician 7,000 miles away.

In addition, an updated version of the Reaper, due to be deployed in 2010, will be equipped with the ominously named “Gorgon Stare,” which will give controllers and commanders the ability to eye a target from 12 different angles across a four-kilometer radius. As Air Force News explains, if 12 different terrorists scatter from a building in 12 different directions, “Gorgon Stare could dedicate one angle to each.” Predators and Reapers are using satellites to transmit 16,000 hours of video every month to troops on the ground and commanders around the world.

In other words, these are anything but glorified remote-control toys. In fact, the Predator and Reaper are so central to the battle against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants in Pakistan’s laughably misnamed “federally administered tribal areas” that observers have dubbed this front of the War on Terror, “the drone war.”

In the second war of the 21st century, which looms somewhere beyond the War on Terror, space itself could become the battlefield. “We know from history that every medium — air, land and sea — has seen conflict,” the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization concluded in 2001. “Reality indicates that space will be no different.” The commission’s chairman, Donald Rumsfeld, argued, “More than any other country, the United States relies on space for its security and well-being.” Underscoring this assertion, the United States has more satellites than the combined total of the rest of the world, as AP has reported.

However, America’s command of the ultimate high ground is increasingly precarious. The Washington Post reports that in the past decade Russia has put more satellites into space than has the U.S. In fact, 53 U.S.-built satellites were launched in 2007, down from 121 in 1998 (Marc Kaufman, “U.S. finds it’s getting crowded out there,” Washington Post (July 9, 2008)). Moreover, many other nations are planting their banners in space; China is the most active newcomer. The Europeans are pooling their resources to deploy evermore sophisticated space assets. According to the Washington Post, Japan is committed to using space assets to buttress its national defense; India recently launched ten satellites on just one rocket; and Brazil, Israel, Singapore, and a growing list of other nations are deploying a range of space assets. That list includes Iran, which has plans to put five satellites into orbit by 2010.

To be sure, much of this activity is civilian, but even civilian satellites can be diverted for military uses. In 1991, for instance, the U.S. military “procured commercial remote sensing imagery from a non-U.S. company during Desert Storm” (Duane P. Andrews, et al., “Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization,” (January 11, 2001), available at http://www.dod.mil/pubs/space20010111.pdf). Likewise, the Pentagon paid firms for exclusive control over satellite imagery during the war in Afghanistan, thereby depriving the enemy of information.

According to General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Intentional interference with space-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and communication satellites, while not routine, now occurs with some regularity.” He warned the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2007 that America’s “increasing appetite for space-based technical solutions . . . could become our Sword of Damocles.” Indeed, the ability to attack U.S. space assets is no longer limited to a select club of military powers. Anti-satellite weapons, satellite-jamming equipment, and microsatellites are inexpensive and increasingly accessible on the global market. “To minimize the threat to our space capabilities now and in the future,” Cartwright has argued, “we need continued support of programs that enhance our space situational awareness, space protection capabilities, and satellite operations in order to preserve unfettered, reliable, and secure access to space.”

Civilian programs must be viewed as part of this mix. It pays to recall that many shuttle missions have been strictly military missions, some of them highly classified. Indeed, the link between manned spaceflight, national security, and satellites should not be brushed aside. The space shuttle, after all, is a manned satellite, performing functions, gathering information and conducting operations (such as rescue, repair, and experimentation) that unmanned satellites cannot. It’s hard to imagine that, during the five-year gap without a shuttle, the U.S. will be better served by unmanned satellites and Russian-piloted rockets than by America’s best and brightest deploying into space on American vessels.

Just as the United States relies on space, much of the world relies on the United States to ensure the unencumbered use of space. Protecting what Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called “the 21st century’s global commons — in particular, space and cyberspace” is America’s duty, just as protecting the sea lanes fell to America after World War II. But can America defend the heavens without the capacity to deliver its own into space? We will soon find out, because other countries will not stand still while America regroups.

Making room for China

“I am concerned that America’s real and perceived leadership in the standing of the world’s space-faring nations is slipping away,” Griffin warns. He worries that “we will face growing competition from the advancing Chinese space program.” The concerns are real. China conducted its first spacewalk in 2008. According to Griffin, Beijing plans to “launch about 100 satellites over the next five to eight years.”

There is nothing untoward about this in and of itself. It is only natural for a state with a growing economy and global interests to gain a toehold in space. What is worrisome is how the Chinese are going about this and the prospect that the U.S. will be less able to keep a close eye on China’s celestial activities.

The Pentagon estimated China’s military-related spending last year at $105 billion to $150 billion and has noted that “China has accorded space a high priority for investment.” For example:

  • In 2007, China deployed its first lunar orbiter. That same year, Beijing also tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against one of its own satellites, demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-earth orbit. In addition to the direct-ascent ASAT program, the Pentagon reported in its annual report to Congress on China’s military power, that Beijing is “developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic (hit-to-kill) weapons and directed-energy (e.g., lasers and radio frequency) weapons for ASAT missions.”
  • China is building up its capacity to jam satellite communications and GPS receivers, which are crucial to U.S. commerce and security.
  • A 2008 Pentagon report quotes Chinese military planners as openly envisioning a “space shock and awe strike . . . [to] shake the structure of the opponent’s operational system of organization and . . . create huge psychological impact on the opponent’s policymakers.”
  • The Pentagon noted in 2009  that Chinese military “writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging, and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance/observation and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among initial targets of attack to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’”
  • China is developing a multi-dimensional program to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries during times of crisis or conflict,” according to the Defense Department.
  • China is developing microsatellites, which cost a fraction of what a normal satellite costs and can be used for a range of passive, benign operations or to attack, disable, and kill other satellites. “With a microsat you can go close enough to other spacecrafts in order to repair them, but also to sabotage them,” physicist Laura Grego told the BBC in 2007. Microsatellites can shadow their prey for months or years before attacking.
  • With plans to begin deploying elements of a manned space station next year, China’s goal is to conduct a lunar landing by 2020. How ironic: Just as the communist nation begins to leap toward the moon, earth’s first emissary to the moon surrenders the high ground.

Equally worrisome is the opaque manner in which China conducts military operations, as evidenced by the unannounced ASAT test in 2007. Cartwright said that test had produced dangerous debris that could potentially harm billion-dollar equipment and astronauts. “The lack of transparency in China’s military and security affairs poses risks to stability by increasing the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation,” the Pentagon noted last year. It ominously added, “This situation will naturally and understandably lead to hedging against the unknown.”

Relying on Russia

Beijing is building up its space assets and arsenal, and the United States will begin, in 2010, to rely on Russia to carry Americans into space. “That is a terrible place for the United States to be,” Griffin conceded last year. As he added in remarks to the House Committee on Science and Technology, “I deplore the posture in which we find ourselves. It is unseemly in the extreme.”

In the most basic terms, NASA will purchase seats and room on Russian rockets for American astronauts and equipment, just like you and I purchase airline tickets. To extend the metaphor, the United States will be at the mercy of the airline — Russia, in this case — as to when its personnel depart, how long they stay, what they can take with them, and so on. This is very troublesome, especially given Russia’s open hostility to U.S. interests and policies of late. Just imagine the U.S. needing to repair a military or telecommunications satellite on short notice or without the interference of prying eyes. And then imagine the mischief Moscow could do in such a situation.

Equally worrisome is the high-stakes bargaining — or if you prefer, blackmail — this unfortunate situation invites. What’s to stop the Kremlin from demanding that, in exchange for a trip into space, the U.S. deactivate missile defense bases in Poland or the Czech Republic, pull out of Kosovo, look the other way as the Russian army finishes what it started in Georgia, or accede to Russian control over some new energy pipeline? These aren’t fanciful notions. They are real issues that Russia takes very seriously.

What few Americans realize is that the U.S. has been using Russian rockets for many years. Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station after Columbia, and NASA actually has a significant presence in Moscow, including a special office in the U.S. embassy (Embassy of the United States, Moscow,  http://moscow.usembassy.gov/nasa.html). Leebaert reminds us that in the 1990s and early 2000s, “super-secret intelligence satellites from the National Reconnaissance Office were launched from Cape Canaveral in the presence of Russian technicians, because the engine that powers the Atlas III is a joint venture involving AMROSS, a Russian space company” (Leebaert, 630).

Of course, collaborating with Russia by choice is far different than counting on Putin and his puppets out of necessity. Moscow has had little leverage with Washington since the end of the Cold War, but that will change in the post-shuttle, pre-CEV era. Marc Kaufman of The Washington Post notes that lost prestige and lost leverage could also impact Washington’s ability to persuade Moscow to use its influence in Iran (see Kaufman, “NASA wary of relying on Russia,” The Washington Post, March 7, 2008).

Shifting roles, lowering expectations

To be sure, the U.S. is not going to cease to be a space-faring nation once the shuttle fleet is retired and American astronauts are reduced to hitching a ride on Russian rockets. The Pentagon will continue to be active in space during the interregnum when the U.S. is not able to transport its own to and from space. In fact, the Washington Post has estimated that NASA receives less than half of what space programs related to national security receive, which would translate into some $36 billion (Kauffman).

For now, those resources are helping the U.S. military carry out the National Space Policy of 2006, which directs the Pentagon to maintain capabilities for “space control,” serve as “launch agent for both the defense and intelligence sectors,” support the missile defense system, and “ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” However, Cartwright, who headed U.S. Strategic Command prior to his appointment to the Joint Chiefs, has argued, “Without adjustments to our strategy, we may not be able to count on unfettered access to space-based systems should others persist in their course of developing counter-space weapons.”

All of this may serve as an argument for shifting space operations, including manned spaceflight, to the U.S. military. Yet such a transformation would seem to be years away.

First, it doesn’t seem to conform to the new president’s views on the military use of space. The Obama administration, according to its defense agenda, vows to pursue “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.” The administration of George W. Bush opposed such international treaties and even demonstrated U.S. military capabilities in space by shooting down a satellite. One hopes the Obama administration will remember what history always re-reminds us: Treaties are only as good as the parties that sign them.

Second, the president’s long-delayed decision on Griffin’s replacement at NASA provides a strong indication that space is not going to be a priority in the coming years. As the Associated Press observed, the Obama administration nominated “nearly 200 officials, including an undersecretary of agriculture for rural development, an assistant labor secretary for veterans employment and training, and actor Kal Penn as a White House liaison” before naming Charles Bolden, a retired Marine general and former shuttle astronaut, as NASA administrator (Seth Borstein, “NASA faces deadline for tough decisions on shuttle,” Associated Press (April 22, 2009)). And finally, shifting space operations away from NASA would likely trigger a turf war within the Pentagon that few are eager to wage.

The challenge

Surrendering the ability to carry astronauts into space promises to be a blow to America’s  international stature. And in this age of global connectivity and global competition, what may seem like a marginal matter could become a serious problem. Remember, we already live in an era when America is perceived as a nation in decline. Pierre Hassner of the Paris-based National Foundation for Political Science recently concluded, “It will not be the New American Century.” A 2005 piece in The Guardian dismissed America as “the hollow superpower.” It’s no wonder that Obama addressed the “nagging fear” of America’s decline in his inauguration speech, and Bush dismissed “the belief that America is in decline” in his 2006 State of the Union.

What’s relevant here is how America’s self-imposed absence from space could fuel the declinist fire, weaken America’s standing, and enhance the position of America’s enemies. Again, history is instructive: When Sputnik rocketed into orbit and Moscow triumphed, Senator Henry Jackson called it “a national week of shame and danger.” America’s attempt to match Moscow only highlighted the gap between the two superpowers when, weeks after Sputnik, America’s answer, Vanguard, exploded on takeoff. Leebaert writes that Moscow’s initial space superiority was “alarming because it was far more visible than anything else in science and technology.” Combined with America’s futility, the situation negatively impacted the country’s prestige and security, “the two in those days being habitually linked” (Leebaert, 222-223).

Even if Washington overstated the damage to U.S. security caused by Sputnik, there was a real sense that America was no longer chasing the future and setting the pace. It is possible that America’s coming retreat from space could have a similar effect. We have zigzagged up and mostly down from post-Sputnik paranoia, to profligacy, to pay-go space exploration, to purchasing seats and storage on Russian rockets. America can do better than this.

To be sure, we must guard against a return to what Paul Johnson once called “the show-biz era of space travel,” with “its contempt for finance, its assumption that resources were limitless.” But there is a happy medium between yesterday’s space-spending frenzy and today’s under-funded minimalism. The alternatives leave much to be desired and, as the above scenarios underscore, much to worry about.

Griffin believes commercial cargo transport services from European, Japanese, and U.S. firms will be available in the coming years, but there will still be a gap during which the U.S. will have no way of transporting U.S. astronauts into space in U.S. spacecraft. Moreover, although NASA recently awarded Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) a contract for launches through December 2012, it’s worth noting that there are limitations to what private firms can do: The SpaceX Falcon 9 is expected to carry 22,000 pounds into space. By contrast, the shuttle can deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit. Moreover, a SpaceX Falcon 1 rocket carrying payloads for NASA and the Department of Defense failed in August 2008, its third failure since 2006 (See Matthew Honan, “The Falcon 1’s rocket science, from its avionics to its engines,” Wired (May 22, 2007) and “SpaceX finds cause of failed private rocket launch,” Associated Press (August 6, 2008)).

A Washington Post analysis notes that Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicle is a possible alternative. “We believe we can be an important part of the solution for the space station and counterbalance to the Russians, if we are given a chance,” said Jean Yves Le Gall, who heads the firm that operates the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launchers. The ESA rocket is expensive, however, and largely unproven, especially when compared to the shuttle or Russia’s delivery vehicles. Indeed, it pays to recall that the ESA is still mulling whether and when to begin a manned space program.

Citing the needs of the International Space Station, in which the U.S. has invested some $35 billion since the 1980s, the GAO has concluded that extending the shuttle’s life may be the most prudent course of action. That would require investing more in NASA. Congress began that process late last year, and Obama’s space-policy paper says he is “committed to making the necessary investments to ensure we close this gap as much as is technically feasible.”

However, from wars to Wall Street bailouts, one wonders how much more there is to invest — and how strong the new administration’s commitment to closing the gap will be, given the priorities and problems lined up ahead of the shuttle.