02 February 2006

Today in the Science News: Part 6: Space Policy

There were two interesting articles on the space program and the federal government today. One was about this year's budget, which does not cut funding for NASA, and the other was an op-ed about ProSpace March Storm, a group that meets with Congress to promote their space-related goals.

On the first topic, this year's federal budget, I am of course glad to see that NASA has not experienced cuts. But I am somewhat surprised to see Mike Griffin still insisting that the shuttle will complete another 17-18 flights before it retires in 2010. It is now 2006, and even assuming the shuttle retires at the end of 2010, we're still talking about 17-18 flights in 59 months, or about one flight every 3 months. And that assumes flights start right away; as far as I know, the foam issue is still unresolved. Given the unspectacular record of 1 flight in the last 36 months or so, I'm not convinced.

I'm torn on this issue, as I mentioned in my memorial post. On the one hand, I do think humans are meant to explore space; but on the other, I'm not at all happy with the shuttle. The problem with the shuttle is that it tried to be all things to all men, which is why I am happy with the current plan to replace it with a fleet of vehicles. And the shuttle is so unsafe. During STS-114, the Return to Flight mission, I don't think I drew a full breath from the moment Discovery's engines ignited to the moment it landed two weeks later. And when I saw the footage of the foam breaking off the ET and just barely missing the Orbiter, I began to believe that retiring the shuttle immediately, and devoting the shuttle program's resources to developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle and Crew Launch Vehicle, would be the best decision.

The primary disadvantage of this plan is that it would effectively abandon the International Space Station. Crews could still get there on the Soyuz, at least as long as NASA is willing to pay Russia for Soyuz flights, but without the shuttle, construction can't continue, and a crew larger than 2 can't be maintained.

Now, I don't see a problem with abandoning the ISS on the principle of not throwing good money after bad, but we did make a promise to the international community. Perhaps if we were able to reach an agreement on a new space station (which I hope would model the cooperative framework on Cassini-Huygens), we could be released from our promise. But otherwise, I feel that we have an obligation to continue construction of the ISS.

Regardless, we need to develop our new vehicles as efficiently as possible. I'd like to see NASA form a stronger partnership with commercial companies, which brings me to the March Stormers. They mention the stark contrast between Burt Rutan's rapid and inexpensive development of SpaceShipOne and the government's effort to develop a new human-rated vehicle. Sadly, they are completely right, and I would like to see NASA take advantage of the private sector's abilities and resources while not burdening them with excessive bureaucracy. (Don't ask me how. It's a pipe dream.)

In short, I'm excited about the upcoming development of a new fleet of vehicles, and very excited about the efforts going forward in the private sector, but not exactly sanguine about continuing to fly the shuttle and maintain a presence on the ISS.

But, to end on a positive note, I'd like to remind everyone that NASA has done and continues to do spectacular scientific work. NASA administrates several space telescopes besides the Hubble, and has craft at Mars and Saturn, with another vehicle currently on its way to Mars and one on its way to Pluto. And, of course, there are Spirit and Opportunity, pluckily exploring away. I know they're there, I've seen the footage, and I even have a picture Spirit took as my desktop background, but I still can't quite believe that two pieces of humanity are on another planet. It's incredible - and inspiring.


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2:51 PM  

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