ASCF Report | 6.1.12*
By Alan W. Dowd
The end of the space shuttle
program came on July 21, 2011, when Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Sadly, that day also
marked the end of America’s manned spaceflight program—at least for the
foreseeable future. It should have never come to this, and it doesn’t have to
be this way. Before considering how best to correct America’s self-imposed exile from the heavens, it’s important
to look at the causes and consequences.
Decades of benign
neglect and a confluence of events conspired to steer us toward this unhappy
One of those events was the Columbia disaster of 2003. Pre-Columbia, NASA had planned to deploy the
shuttle until 2022. In fact, each shuttle was built for 100 missions. Discovery, the oldest of the now-retired
shuttles, flew just 39. But the loss of Columbia radically altered plans to fly space shuttles into the 2020s.
critics, citing the Columbia and Challenger disasters, argued that it was
too expensive and too undependable. It’s worth noting,
however, that the shuttle program settled into an efficient routine in the
years between Challenger and Columbia. For 17 solid years, to be
exact, the shuttle made the miracle of human 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. So, policymakers of both parties and the public at large
shrugged at the man-made miracle of spaceflight and largely failed to invest
in, plan for or think about life after the shuttle. The result: The greatest
spacefaring power on earth is stuck on earth.
dwindling resources, this was inevitable. Consider the difference between
Washington’s investment in the pre-Apollo NASA and the post-Columbia NASA. In
the early 1960s, NASA accounted for about 1.1 percent of federal spending, as
historian Derek Leebaert recalls in The
Fifty Year Wound.By the time the Eagle had landed on the lunar surface, he
notes that the U.S. was tasking “300,000 workers at around 20,000 companies in
all 50 states” on the space program. Today, NASA outlays amount to less than
0.5 percent of federal spending.
The old saying,
“You get what you pay for,” is true. As Norman
Augustine, chairman of President Barack Obama’s Human
Spaceflight Plans Committee (HSPC), observed in 2009, “This nation could
afford a strong human spaceflight program…it’s simply a question of priority.”
But since manned spaceflight was
not a priority, funding declined, and a gap between the end of the shuttle and
the beginning of its successor program emerged. Under the Bush administration’s
plan, that gap had a defined endpoint of March
2015. The Bush administration proposed phasing out the shuttle to divert
resources to the Constellation program,
which would use the best of the shuttle and Apollo programs to carry Americans beyond low-earth orbit.
As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell and Gene Cernan noted
in an open letter in 2010, Constellation “was endorsed
by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and
Republican congresses.” But President Obama canceled Constellation and flat-lined NASA
spending. NASA funding was just $17.8 billion in 2012, and the White House requested less for 2013.
Putting on a brave face, NASA chief Charles Bolden—a former astronaut—says
Washington’s spending plan for NASA “requires us to live within our means,”
which is what Americans expect of their government. It’s just that the
administration’s willingness to starve NASA stands in such stark contrast with
its eagerness to pour unprecedented sums into virtually every other government
program. This isn’t a partisan issue. As Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice
Johnson observes, “The important role NASA plays in pushing innovation…argues
for a bigger commitment to the agency than either the administration or
Congress is currently making.”
How much bigger? One HSPC member told The
Washington Post that NASA needs some $50 billion to sustain a manned
program beyond low-earth orbit.
Of course, given the nation’s badly strained fiscal condition, there’s no
political will for diverting that much cash to NASA. That may change as Americans watch the Russians and Chinese surge
ahead in spaceflight.
Russia began carrying
American crews and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) after the Columbia disaster. NASA is paying Russia $753
million to deliver Americans to and from ISS through 2015.Bridging
the gap by relying on Russia was always an imperfect workaround. Michael Griffin, NASA administrator under President George
W. Bush, called it “unseemly in the extreme”—and understandably so. But it’s
more than unseemly and imperfect. “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,” Griffin warned in February 2008.
Of course, collaborating with
Russia as a short-term stopgap is far different than counting on Putin and his
puppets indefinitely. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer,
blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites.
(Russia recently raised fares from $55.8 million per seat to $62.7 million.) Just
as worrisome is Russia’s space competence. In 2011, Russia lost an unmanned
spacecraft for a few days and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed
failure of a Russian satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies called
“a basic fuel miscalculation.”
Still, as National Defense magazine reports, Russia
conducted 31 launches last year. For the first time in history, China (with 19
launches) fired more rockets into space than the United States (18). This year,
China plans 21 launches. Indeed, “China has accorded space a high priority for
investment,” as the Pentagon reports:
- In 2007, China
deployed its first lunar orbiter. That same year, Beijing tested a direct-ascent
anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against one of its own satellites,
demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-earth orbit.
- The Pentagon’s 2011 review of Chinese military power reports that
Beijing “is developing a multi-dimensional program to improve its
capabilities to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by
adversaries.” The 2012 review adds, “Over the past two years, China has…conducted
increasingly complex close-proximity operations between satellites.”
- Beijing has begun deploying elements of a manned space station,
with the goal of conducting a lunar landing by 2020. How ironic: Just as China
begins to leap toward the moon, earth’s first emissary to the moon surrenders
the high ground.
If, as Augustine noted, there are “leadership
benefits of being among the world’s space-faring nations,” there are
consequences to not being a space-faring nation. “To be without carriage to
low-earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond earth
orbit for an indeterminate time into the future,” as the Apollo trio puts it, “destines our nation to become one of second-
or even third-rate stature.”
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 Columbia. That period ominously
coincided with what is generally considered the nadir of America’s post-World
War II power.
We got ourselves into this fix, and
we can get ourselves out. But it’s going to take time, talent and treasure. Regrettably,
we don’t have a surplus of any of these right now.
Every day we defer hard decisions and needed investments is a day China and
Russia close the gap further—or worse, expand their lead. Building new spaceships is not like flipping a light switch.
Yet in can be done sooner rather than later, but only if America summons the
will to begin. The alternative, as President John Kennedy warned in 1962, is “to founder in the
backwash of the coming age of space.”
As to talent, the Apollo generation’s pool of physicists, designers and engineers is rapidly draining
away. “Fifty years ago,” Griffin observed in 2008, “almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees in physics were
awarded in the United States.” Equally
concerning, some 38 percent of technology PhDs are conferred on foreign-born
students, “most of whom return to their home countries,” according to Griffin. 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 and Saturn V rockets.
In short, we have
regressed from in-sourcing space operations to outsourcing them. This has to be
reversed, which brings us to treasure. America’s next chapter in space depends
on a healthy, innovative economy; a mix of public-private space partnerships;
free-market incentives that persuade foreign-born, U.S.-schooled scientists to apply
their talents here; and, yes, increased investment. To be sure, we must guard
against a return to what historian 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.
On the matter of
public-private partnerships, there’s nothing in the Constitution that says
government agencies are the only means of delivering Americans into space.
Private firms like NASA’s new partner SpaceX offer promise. Just last month, a SpaceX
Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral and docked a capsule with ISS. But
it pays to recall that the rocket was unmanned and is unable to lift what a
shuttle could carry. The Falcon 9 is expected to carry 22,000 pounds. By
contrast, the shuttle could deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit.
There is one other way to end
America’s post-shuttle problem: Shift all space operations, including manned
spaceflight, to the U.S. military. Such a transition may already be underway.
Whether it’s by design or by accident is unknown. What we do know is that national-security
space spending is estimated to be more than double the shrinking NASA budget; the
workforce grew from 15,791 in 2009 to 16,739 in 2011, while the civilian
space sector shed 8,000 jobs in 2010 alone; and the Air Force is testing a super-secret
In other words, the end of the shuttle doesn’t mean
the end of America’s presence in space. Even so, it’s difficult to imagine that
the United States will be able to hold or enhance its position relying on an unproven
space plane, under-strength commercial rockets, an undependable Russia and unmanned assets.*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.