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July 13, 2005


Mike Thomas

Just because we’ve done something before doesn’t mean we should do it again. You lament the fact that we accomplished so little in the past 25 years compared to the previous 25, but I suspect a large reason for that was the six year period you cite where we did next to nothing in space exploration.
I acknowledge your point that the money could be used for other research. It is a common complaint I have observed in science where rather than banning together to support research in general, scientists tend to fight among themselves over the limited resources they are allotted. If the government gives money to that other fellow’s research project it means there will be less money for my projects, and so forth.

But even if that is the reality, can you be sure that the Bush administration would actually use the money saved by shutting down the shuttle program for other research rather than diverting it toward more tax cuts, privatizing Social Security or launching a war against Eastern Slobovia?
I don’t want to see manned spaceflight go into the mothballs for the next 10 to 15 years. I’m all for speeding up the development of the next generation of manned space vehicles, but I think it would be a mistake to cut ourselves off from space exploration in the interim.
We are a wealthy country. We can afford to have a manned space program and continue the other research that is important. What we need most is better leadership in Washington.


Thanks for your comment, Mike. You raise some interesting issues, though they don't change the direction I'm thinking. I'll try to clarify.

Given budget realities for at least the next few years, I don't think NASA can afford to develop the next-generation vehicle while continuing to fly the old ones. That is definitely the thinking of the new NASA administrator, Griffin, who, by the way, is definitely a gung-ho manned spaceflight guy.

NASA has 3 big-ticket items in its limited budget: (1) continue flying shuttle and building ISS; (2) continue Earth and space science research; (3) develop a next-generation space vehicle (CEV).

Given the lack of new money provided with the addition of #3 in the last couple years, something has to give. #2 (science) appears to be in line for the biggest hit. But #1 is also getting hit, as evidenced by the solid 2010 termination date wanted by the administration.

So hit #1 for more, cancelling, or cutting back, the shuttle even earlier, and #2 won't be quite so bad off. (Perhaps Congress would just transfer the money out of NASA entirely, but I don't think so, given NASA's fairly strong consituency.) I think the general population would rank #2 a higher priority than #1. Think of the Hubble Space Telescope, Cassini, the Mars rovers, improved climate and weather forecasting and environmental monitoring from the EOS missions, and much more. Then think of the ISS... if you can. There really is no competition.

Note that the first 25 years of the space program included the development of the shuttle program and the 6-year hiatus in spaceflight due to it.

The last time NASA developed a new generation of space vehicles while still flying the old one was back in the mid-60s during Gemini, while Apollo was being developed. NASA was at the very peak of its budget in those days, getting at least twice per year (in today's dollars) what it does today. (Even so, 3 astronauts were killed in a tragic fire during testing of the Apollo spacecraft.)

Finally, I don't feel this is a "turf war" between scientists. The shuttle/ISS is not about science. ISS has become so delayed and downsized that there is very little, perhaps no, ground-breaking science being done there.

This article by a former NASA astronaut (Philip Chapman) presents a vicious critique of ISS's capabilities that I suspect is not far off the mark.

Now I'd better stop, since this comment has become so long that it probably should be a post (or even two).


Ok, I can't stop: Let me just highlight this short exceprt about ISS science from Chapman's article:

The life-cycle cost of the ISS, including development expenses and shuttle flights, amounts to at least $8 billion per year (2003 dollars). This is 60% more than the entire budget of the National Science Foundation, which supports thousands of earthbound scientists.

US taxpayers have a right to expect that such expensive research will be of a quality that wins Nobel Prizes, but what we are actually getting are pro forma experiments that occupy a small fraction of the time of one person.

The cost is preposterous: it amounts to nearly fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000!) for each hour of scientific work by the American crewmember. NASA has no chance whatsoever of convincing scientists that this is a reasonable allocation of scarce research funds.


Mike, you forgot to blame Halliburton too!


I am an Engineer on the Space Shuttle program, and while on the surface all the issues you raise are somewhat correct, you are leaving out a few details. First, if human kind is to someday leave Earth and live and work in space colonies or lunar bases, we better first learn how to live in space. The longest an American astronaut has lived in space is 7 months, and for a Russian cosmonaut, it's a little over a year.

Are there long term effects on humans, plants and animals living in microgravity for long periods of time? How do we protect ourselves from solar flares, cosmic radiation and space debris. Think about living here on Earth. Have we designed homes or cars that operate perfectly with no maintenance for 10 years? Do we provide our own sources of power, communications, water and sewer services? What do we do with our trash? In addition to these basic services, we need to supply atmospheric pressue, oxygen and we need to get rid of carbon dioxide. How do we do that? We all hook up to our community water, sewer, power and communications systems to live our daily lives.

In space we have to provide all these services ourselves, and if something breaks, we must fix it ourselves with what we have available. Now imagine providing all these services in a vacuum, with temperatures that are often 250 degrees above zero in sunlight and 250 degrees below zero in shadow. We don't have all the answers. Will we risk astronauts and cosmonauts to find out? As the shuttle accidents have demonstrated, we as a society are risk averse, and we will not risk human beings until we have the answers.

Robots must be the answer. Robotic missions to Mars are exciting and necessary to exploration, and have they have returned breath-taking images and data about other worlds, but not one has found water in a usable form to support people in space. There are many indications that water might be on the Moon or Mars, but it is a mystery where the water is. It takes human reasoning to put clues together and solve the mystery, which is why the best course of action is to continue exploring with robotic spacecraft, and learn to live and work in space aboard the ISS and future spacecraft before heading out ourselves. And as far as the shuttle is concerned, the space shuttle has transported over 220 people into space, including physicists, astronomers, doctors, an oceanographer, a veterinarian, material scientists that were not professional astronauts. A total of 42 astronauts flew in space in Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab, with a total of 4 science specialists flown. The space shuttle mapped the majority of Earth in just sixteen days (Shuttle Radar Laboratory), studied Earth's atmosphere (Atlas missions), astronomy (Astro missions), conducted initial life sciences missions, pioneered commercial opportunities in space (McDonald Douglas CFES experiments) and launched communication satellites that brought or expanded TV, voice and data communications to millions of people in Canada, India, Malaysia, the Middle East, Europe and the United States. The shuttle also pioneered on-orbit servicing of spacecraft (like the Hubble). Don't discount the role the shuttle played in the past. It fired up the imaginations of many people, and taught us about the dangers that have always been present in spaceflight. Those pesky tiles, high performance main engines, solid rocket boosters and foam shedding External Tanks may have been the subject of criticism by skeptics, but they allow the United States and really all the people of Earth to transport people and equipment to Earth orbit and return for the benefit of everyone on Earth. It deserves better than to called an old relic.

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