Barring a dramatic change of heart in Congress and the White House, the space shuttle program has counted down to its final takeoff. Once the shuttles are mothballed and shipped off to the museums, the United States will have no way of delivering its own astronauts into space, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, U.S. astronauts will fly on Russian rockets, while NASA tries to leverage commercial space assets.
Most Americans either don’t care or don’t know about the nation’s looming self-imposed exile from space. That will change as Russia, China, and others surge ahead—and America lowers its sights.
Mind the Gap
Decades of benign neglect and a confluence of events conspired to steer us toward this unhappy destination.
One of those events was the Columbia disaster of 2003. Pre-Columbia, NASA had planned to deploy the shuttle until 2022. In fact, Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan points out that each shuttle was built for 100 missions. Discovery, the oldest of the remaining three shuttles, has flown just 39. But the loss of Columbia radically altered plans to fly space shuttles into the 2020s.
The shuttle’s critics, citing the Columbia and Challenger disasters, have long argued that it is too expensive and too undependable. A prime example is science writer Jeffrey Kluger’s observation 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” (Time, March 6, 2006).
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.
In truth, the space shuttle was, and is, anything but ordinary. It lifts off like a rocket, races around the earth like a satellite, services space stations and telescopes, delivers satellites and sensors, and then glides home on a fountain of fire, before gently touching down like any passenger plane. And somehow it is only the failures—two over 30 years and some 135 missions—that grab our attention.
That leads us to the benign neglect. For decades, policy makers of both parties and the public at large shrugged at the man-made miracle of spaceflight, failed to appreciate the nation’s reliance on space for everyday life and largely failed to invest in, plan for, or think about life after the shuttle. When Challenger exploded in 1986, for instance, U.S. policy makers should have recognized that the shuttle was neither immortal nor problem free, and they should have begun to invest in the shuttle’s successor. But that didn’t happen. In fact, it wasn’t until October 2009, almost a quarter-century after Challenger, that the United States tested the Ares I-X rocket—the first new crew-capable spacecraft unveiled by NASA since the shuttle.
Today, NASA funding amounts to about 0.5% of federal spending. In the early 1960s, it was about 1.1% of federal spending (Derek Leebaert, The Fifty-Year Wound, 267). The result, as explained by Norman Augustine, chairman of the presidentially appointed Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (HSPC), is that NASA “doesn’t have enough money to develop the next-generation system while it continues to operate the current system” (remarks before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee, September 16, 2009).
In other words, without additional spending, a gap between the end of the shuttle and the beginning of its successor program was inevitable. Under the Bush administration’s plan, that gap had a defined endpoint, somewhere around 2014–15. 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 and deeper into space.
As Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, and Cernan noted in an open letter last year, “Constellation was endorsed by two presidents of different parties and approved by both Democratic and Republican congresses” (Armstrong, Cernan, Lovell, April 13, 2010).
However, President Barack Obama canceled Constellation and has flatlined NASA spending. As NASA administrator Charles Bolden puts it, the new NASA budget “requires us to live within our means,” which is what most Americans expect of their government (“NASA Administrator Addresses Agency Budget,” NASA.gov, February 15, 2011). It’s just that the administration’s willingness to make tough decisions on NASA spending stands in such stark contrast with its eagerness to pour unprecedented sums into virtually every other government program.
Moreover, according to some congressional leaders, the president has ignored the stated will of Congress when it comes to America’s space program. “While last year’s Authorization Act was by no means a perfect bill,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) said during a recent hearing focused on NASA funding, “it did clearly articulate Congress’s intention that NASA pursue a means of transportation that builds on all the work that’s been done over the past five years. I do not see it reflected in the proposed NASA budget request” (Clara Moskowitz, “NASA Chief Defends Space Budget in Congress,” MSNBC, March 2, 2011).
What the Obama administration has done instead is use NASA resources to encourage the development of commercial rockets and to continue purchasing Russian-outsourced missions. Russia began carrying American crews and cargo to the International Space Station after the Columbia disaster in 2003. The United States is forking over $780 million through 2011 to purchase seats and space on Russian rockets, and Russia recently upped the price from $55.8 million per seat to $62.7 million under a new contract (Michael Griffin, Statement before the Committee on Science and Technology, February 13, 2008; Tariq Malik, “NASA to Fly Astronauts on Russian Spaceships at Nearly $63 Million per Seat,” Space.com, March 14, 2011).
Of course, collaborating with Russia as a short-term stopgap is far different than counting on Putin and his puppets indefinitely. This is very troublesome, especially given Russia’s open hostility to U.S. interests and policies. Consider the high-stakes bargaining—or if you prefer, blackmail—this unfortunate situation invites.
Just as worrisome is Russia’s space competence. Earlier this year, Russia launched an unmanned spacecraft, lost it for a few days, and then found it in the wrong orbit. This followed failure of a satellite to reach orbit due to what news agencies called “a basic fuel miscalculation” (AFP, “Russia: Foreign Power May Have Disabled Satellite,” February 14, 2011).
As to private-sector alternatives, Armstrong, Cernan, and Lovell note that “The availability of a commercial transport to orbit as envisioned in the president’s proposal cannot be predicted with any certainty.” Indeed, there are limitations to what private firms can do: one of NASA’s main private-sector partners is SpaceX, which is developing the Falcon 9 rocket, which is expected to carry 22,000 pounds into space. By contrast, the shuttle can deliver a 65,000-pound payload into orbit. Moreover, SpaceX rockets have failed several times since 2006 (Matthew Honan, “The Falcon 1’s Rocket Science, from Its Avionics to Its Engines,” Wired, May 22, 2007; AP, “SpaceX finds cause of failed private rocket launch,” August 6, 2008).
The Ultimate High Ground
These alternatives are simply not worthy of the United States, the greatest space-faring nation in history. “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 astronaut trio puts it, “destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature.”
Indeed, in a realm beyond yet related to national security, surrendering the ability to carry astronauts into space promises to be a blow to America’s prestige. 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.
Deploying into space isn’t about geopolitical bragging rights nowadays. It’s about maintaining America’s national security edge and holding the ultimate high ground to tilt the global balance of power in favor of the United States and its closest allies.
China understands this. As Xu Qiliang, commander of China’s air force, has observed, “If you control space, you can also control the land and the sea” (BBC, “U.S. Praises China’s Space Progress,” December 4, 2009).
Toward that end, China is rapidly developing capabilities “to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by its potential adversaries,” according to the Pentagon. In 2007, Beijing tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, demonstrating its ability to attack satellites in low-earth orbit. The Pentagon reports that Beijing is “developing other technologies and concepts for kinetic (hit-to-kill) weapons and directed-energy weapons for ASAT missions.” A 2008 Pentagon report quotes Chinese military planners as 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.’” (All quotes from the Pentagon’s Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2007, 2008, and 2009.)
“To minimize the threat to our space capabilities now and in the future,” General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 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” (James Cartwright, Testimony Before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 28, 2007).
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.
The United States does have options. “It’s clear to me that this nation could afford a strong human spaceflight program,” Augustine told a Senate committee in 2009, noting that Americans spend $32 billion on movies. “It’s simply a question of priority.”
Among the alternatives cited by the HSPC are extending the shuttle’s life span “to preserve U.S. capability to launch astronauts into space,” developing a heavy-lift vehicle derived from the shuttle program’s infrastructure, and/or investing additional resources into NASA to create “a less constrained budget” and allow for “meaningful human exploration” (HSPC, 3, 9–10, 12).
Boeing engineer Mike Dahm has proposed flying the shuttle without astronauts. “De-man-rate it and fly it autonomous,” he suggested in 2009 (Joel Achenbach, “Hubble Mission Opens Shuttle's Last Act,” Washington Post, May 12, 2009). While that wouldn’t solve America’s manned-spaceflight gap, it would at least free the United States from dependence on Russia.
To attract new resources, Cernan proposes a voluntary NASA tax checkoff similar to the one for presidential elections.
Yet another alternative is shifting all space operations, including manned spaceflight, to the U.S. military. In fact, NASA’s annual funding—around $18.7 billion—is “less than half of the amount spent on national security space programs” (Marc Kaufman, “U.S. Finds It’s Getting Crowded out There,” Washington Post, July 9, 2008). We can extrapolate national-security space spending to be around $38 billion.
Even though that’s a tiny amount relative to overall federal spending, it warrants an explanation. After all, thoughtful people question whether it’s in the economic interest of taxpayers to invest in space programs. Those who view government’s main role as providing services might argue that space spending diverts resources from social programs, while the more market-minded among us might say the government is already taking enough from the private sector.
We might find part of the answer to this line of contention from no less an authority on economic behavior than Adam Smith, who noted that “the first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force” (Adam Smith , The Wealth of Nations, Liberty Fund-Glasgow Edition, 1991, 689). What serves as the launching pad for violence, threat, or invasion—land, sea, sky, or space—diminishes neither the danger nor the sovereign’s duty to confront it.
With an eye on confronting space-based threats, the Air Force is testing the secret X-37, an unmanned space plane that enters orbit courtesy of an Atlas V rocket, can loiter in space for up to 270 days, and can fly 500 nautical miles above the earth. An X-37 returned from a 225-day mission in December 2010; another X-37 started a mission in March 2011. 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 maintain its space edge relying on an experimental space plane, under-strength commercial rockets and an undependable Russia.
Yet bringing NASA into the Pentagon’s orbit would seem to be years away.
First, such a shift would trigger turf battles within the Pentagon and within Congress that few are eager to wage.
Second, it doesn’t seem to conform to the president’s views on the military use of space. Although the Obama administration has allowed testing of the X-37, it has vowed to pursue “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites” (Frank Morring, “White House Wants Space Weapons Ban,” Aviation Week, Jan 27, 2009). Banning ASAT weapons is a noble goal. But to update an old saying, that rocket has already left the earth’s atmosphere. The Chinese and Russian militaries are not going to unlearn what they know or surrender their capabilities. Neither should the U.S. military. As George Washington counseled, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
The previous two administrations subscribed to this commonsense view. The Bush administration, for example, opposed treaties that would constrain U.S. operations in space and demonstrated U.S. space capabilities by shooting down a satellite. Likewise, the Clinton administration authorized the Pentagon to test laser weapons against a satellite and adopted a space policy directing 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” (John Hyten, “A Sea of Peace or a Theater of War?” Air and Space Power Journal, Fall 2002; The White House, National Space Policy Fact Sheet, September 19, 1996).
A New World
In light of these recent precedents, current global challenges and future risks, the Obama administration needs to revisit its plans for space. Extending the shuttle’s life may not be the solution, but neither is the status quo.
Consider America’s space stand-down from a different perspective: What if, in the midst of exploring, colonizing, and securing the New World, Britain—the greatest seafaring power of its day—decided to mothball its naval fleet and rely on other countries to transport British men and material across the oceans? This much we know: Britain and the world would be very different today.
After America’s self-imposed exile from space is over, America and the world—and space—could be very different.