Does the Space Program Have a Future?

Attn: Kay Bailey Hutchison
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Feb. 6 2003 4:17 PM

Does the Space Program Have a Future?

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Nathan has started off as thoughtful, reflective, and philosophical. Rats! It's hard to resist trying to match by quoting Albert Borgmann. Instead I will be prosaic and pragmatic. A manned space program—there's just no adjectival way around "manned"—is sure to continue because Congress will insist on it, and anyway, some future turn of events might make astronauts essential to society. (If a large asteroid were approaching Earth, we'd sure want people who could fly to it and plant bombs just like in the movies.) So, the pragmatic question is how to rationalize manned space flight. The answer is to cancel the space-shuttle program and replace it with something cheaper and safer.

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Many of the arguments against the shuttle are familiar, and at any rate Nathan and I can't argue about this because we concur. What's distressing is that the space shuttle blowing up twice on national TV has not caused Congress to say the obvious—cancel the program—but to hem and haw and call for more funds. Everyone says that failing schools should not be rewarded with more money; why failing space programs? So far as I can tell, to Congress the mission of the space shuttle is not to fly to orbit but to deliver pork to constituents. That members of Congress aren't calling for cancellation of the program seems a kind of ultimate cynicism: Who cares if it blows up or accomplishes anything commensurate with cost? All we care about is getting the money.

In this regard it is a complete fallacy that the shuttle budget has been starved for funds, or that safety was compromised by low appropriations. The NASA budget has fallen somewhat in inflation-adjusted terms, but shuttle launches have declined at a greater rate.

Senators for NASA-benefiting states, such as Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, are now claiming the space shuttle failed because it is underfunded. Either Hutchison has no idea what she is talking about—she would hardly be the only one on shuttle issues to fall into this category—or she's exploiting the tragedy for fresh slices of pork. Spending per shuttle launch—the only number that matters—has risen steadily, from a current-dollars average of $448 million per mission in the late 1990s to $640 million per launch last year. See this argument in detail in the New Republic out today—it's an unsigned staff editorial, but I know the writer and think he's pretty well-informed.

Suppose shuttle operations were canceled and 10 years of spending set aside to develop new launch systems. Ten years of shuttle funding would create a pool of around $35 billion, which is enough capital for a major development undertaking. Given that no propulsion breakthrough appears on the horizon, the shuttle replacements would need to be driven by chemical motors, and that narrows down the options. Almost every analyst who thinks rationally about the situation comes to the same conclusion: that what's needed is a new generation of low-cost throwaway rockets for putting payload into orbit, coupled to a small "spaceplane" carrying people only on those occasions when men and women are truly needed in space.

Considering that the United States has not designed an all-new throwaway rocket since the Saturn V, which first flew in 1967, new technology, especially in materials and electronics, ought to allow for advanced rockets of relatively low cost and high performance, and perhaps partial reusability. The Atlas V and Delta IV, two new updates of venerable rockets, are distressingly expensive, but both were developed under Air Force-subsidized cost-plus programs; a real free-market fly-off for best new rocket might produce big savings. Atlas V hints at what is possible; its Russian-built main engine generates almost as much thrust as a space shuttle main engine, but it has 90 percent fewer moving parts. That the Atlas, originally designed as an ICBM to obliterate the Soviet Union, now uses a Russian engine is a fact that delights me.

Get the payloads off the shuttle and onto unmanned throwaway rockets, and astronauts will stop dying to perform humdrum tasks. The crew of Challenger died trying to deliver to orbit a data-relay satellite; the crew of Columbia died after conducting some minor experiments that an automated probe could have handled at one-tenth the price. Once NASA can once again put payloads into orbit at low cost and at no risk to people, space plans can become ambitious again.

X-15 space plane
To infinity ... and beyond: the X-15

Spaceplane buffs, meanwhile, have been agonizing that half a century ago the United States had a functioning, reliable, and low-cost spaceplane: the X-15. Beginning in 1959, before Yuri Gagarin, the X-15 flew upward about 60 miles, the boundary of space, some 200 times. Dropped from beneath the wing of a B-52, this spaceplane proved reliable and low-cost although developed in a short time on the cheap and using technology far less sophisticated than today's. When initial space-shuttle funding decisions were made in the early 1970s, NASA lobbied furiously against various proposals for a grown-up X-15—exactly because NASA knew such a vehicle would be dramatically cheaper than the shuttle.

Well, if we could build a good spaceplane in 1959, I'm guessing we could build a better one now. An advanced spaceplane carrying a crew but no payload might be dropped from beneath a very large carrier aircraft or launched atop a regular rocket. Just a few weeks ago NASA—which endlessly investigates low-cost shuttle alternatives, finds a way to make them expensive, and then abandons the project—announced a spaceplane study. The goal is a five-person spaceplane launched atop a regular rocket and designed for people only. NASA carefully couched the idea as nothing more than a means to get people back from the space station in the event of an emergency—certainly not a shuttle replacement, do not panic, Sen. Hutchison!

But a shuttle replacement is exactly what's called for, and a small spaceplane for people, plus new throwaway rockets for cargo, would fit the bill. Once such systems existed, we could think about going back to the Moon, or onward to Mars. Right now NASA isn't even planning trips to either place, because the shuttle stands in the way.

Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.