NASA Administrator Mike Griffin created something of a furor within his own agency when he was quoted in USA Today Sept. 28 remarking that the shuttle and space station programs were mistakes. That statement upset enough of the agency employees who work on those programs that Mr. Griffin felt compelled a few days later to clarify his remarks in a memo and apologize for bruising any feelings.
It is understandable why he felt it important to apologize — it clearly is the best way in the age of instant media analysis to make an embarrassing moment go away. It also is understandable that he would want to soothe the feelings of people who work very hard on their programs and take justifiable pride in their accomplishments.
As has been noted many times before, the shuttle is an incredible machine with tremendous capabilities. In many ways it can serve as its own rudimentary space station for a little more than two weeks. It can launch very large objects into low Earth orbit and transport more people into space than any other vehicle. The shuttle can transport huge quantities of material to and from the space station. The latter is particularly important because the spacecraft used by Russia — so far the only alternative to the shuttle — have very limited capabilities for transporting experiments and other material back to Earth.
Likewise, the space station is an amazing facility, but it has yet to reach its full potential — something that might never happen, especially when you consider the fragility of the shuttle system. More than a dozen shuttle missions are still needed to get major components of the space station into orbit. With the shuttle fleet grounded again, it is far from clear whether that will happen before NASA retires the shuttle fleet in 2010, as it currently plans to do.
So, were the shuttle and station mistakes?
The best way to answer that question is to follow the money.
The shuttle was sold to Congress and the public in the 1970s as a way to lower the high cost of getting people and satellites into orbit . NASA officials talked about weekly launches from multiple launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Fla., and at least one at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. By the time shuttles started launching in the early 1980s, however, it had become painfully clear that they were never going to achieve those kinds of flight rates.
And as we have witnessed twice in less than two decades, the shuttle is a dangerous transportation system with very narrow margins of error. Even after all the safety upgrades in the wake of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, fatal accidents continue to be a very real possibility, which is one of the reasons shuttle maintenance and safety efforts are so expensive. When all costs are figured in and average-year launch rates taken into account, each shuttle mission costs nearly $1 billion.
Similarly, NASA sold then-President Ronald Reagan on the space station in part by putting an $8 billion price tag on it. By the time the program is supposed to end some time next decade, the true figure will probably be 10 times that number and maybe much more.
Today, the space shuttle and space station are sucking the life out of NASA’s other programs. The shuttle program needs more than $5 billion over the next five years. With NASA’s budget unlikely to grow over that same time period the news for other programs is not going to be pretty.
Had NASA received the kinds of budgets that were talked about in the late 1980s and early 1990s — at one point there were recommendations for 10 percent annual increases — the agency might have been able to keep a better balance in its funding priorities.
But those funding profiles were never realistic. Instead, NASA saw its real spending power slashed throughout most of the 1990s.
At best, the agency is looking at flat budgets for the rest of this decade. As a result human spaceflight will continue to draw funding from other efforts including the very productive robotic exploration program.
So while Mr. Griffin stepped on some fragile toes in his human spaceflight program, he told the truth. And no administrator should ever have to apologize for telling the truth.